In The voice of the silence (1889), Helena Blavatsky (above) designated the pitch F as the keynote of nature. Blavatsky’s authority was Benjamin Silliman, a Professor of chemistry at Harvard; his source was probably The music of nature (1832) by William Gardiner. Beethoven’s sixth symphony had already established F as the favored “pastoral” key.
Blavatsky’s prestige perpetuated the designation among Theosophists, and it remains a popular New Age concept, though some maintain that the correct note is F sharp. Several musicologists have suggested ingenious rationales for the idea that F is a fundamental keynote.
This according to “Is there a keynote of nature?” by Joscelyn Godwin, an essay included in Esotericism, religion, and nature (East Lansing: Association for the Study of Esotericism, 2009, pp. 53–71).
Below, another endorsement of the natural power of F.
Former RILM Editor Woo Shingkwan (胡成筠) has just won the International Musicological Society’s 2018 Outstanding Dissertation Award for The ceremonial music of Zhu Zaiyu.
Zhu Zaiyu (1536–1611) was a mathematician, physicist, music theorist, choreographer, and composer; he is particularly remembered today for creating the theory of 12-tone equal temperament.
Congratulations to our former colleague! Above, a page from the dissertation.
Tablatures of ancient Chinese vocal music usually provide very little concrete information on rhythm, and few ancient Chinese writings on rhythms and time values in musical performance survive. One fortunate exception is the perceptive scholarly work of the 11th-century Buddhist monk Master Yihai, who was the only known person from early China ever to explain musical rhythm using a concrete example from guqin music.
Yihai analyzed a famous musical setting of Su Dongpo’s poem Zui weng yin (醉翁吟, Drunken dotard refrain). The earliest surviving musical notation of Zui weng yin dates from several centuries later; whether a tablature of 1539 actually preserves the music discussed by Yihai cannot be determined with full certainty, but there is indirect evidence to support an early date for the music.
This according to “The Drunken dotard refrain” by Marnix Wells (CHIME: Journal of the European Foundation for Chinese Music Research XX  pp. 85–105). Above, an 18th-century manuscript; below, a 21st-century performance.
In an experiment, over 100 listeners reported associations with crime and detectives when presented with musical examples that were not originally intended to evoke such responses. These examples all involved melodic and harmonic tritones or half-diminished seventh chords, which have long been standard features of the music of crime-themed films, radio programs, and television shows.
The use of tritones and half-diminished chords in these contexts owes as much to their function as a style indicator of certain types of jazz—and as a genre synecdoche of people, places, and activities associated with that style—as it does to its history of harmonic ambiguity and associations with drama and woe in the European classical tradition.
This according to “Tritonal crime and music as music” by Philip Tagg, an essay included in Norme con ironie: Scritti per i settant’anni di Ennio Morricone (Milano: Suvini Zerboni, 1998, pp. 273–309).
Below, The man from U.N.C.L.E. brought a plethora of tritones to family televisions in the mid-1960s.
In 2015 the Society for Music Theory launched SMT-V: Videocast journal of the Society for Music Theory, a peer-reviewed scholarly video publication that explores a wide range of topics in music theory and analysis.
Each video article is about ten minutes in length and accessible for free via the SMT website.
The song of the hermit thrush, a common North American songbird, is renowned for its apparent musicality and has attracted the attention of musicians and ornithologists for more than a century.
Recent research has shown that hermit thrush songs, like much human music, use pitches that are mathematically related by simple integer ratios and follow the harmonic series. These findings add to a small but growing body of research showing that a preference for small-integer ratio intervals is not unique to humans; such findings are particularly relevant to the ongoing nature/nurture debate about whether musical predispositions such as the preference for consonant intervals are biologically or culturally driven.
This according to “Overtone-based pitch selection in hermit thrush song: Unexpected convergence with scale construction in human music” by Emily Doolittle, et al. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America CXI/46 [18 November 2014] pp. 16616–16621).
Below, a hermit thrush video that will fascinate your cats; more recordings, including slowed-down ones, are here.
In 2013 Are Musikverlag launched the series Spektrum Musiktheorie with Die vier Symphonien von Friedrich Gernsheim by Sandra Maria Ehses. The series presents publications of selected dissertations accepted by the Hochschule für Musik at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität in Mainz.
Below, the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland‑Pfalz performs Gernsheim’s fourth symphony under the direction of Siegfried Köhler.
Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of scales and melodic patterns (1947) is a highly systematic compendium of templates for composition and improvisation.
In an interview, Slonimsky stated that “the scales are compositions and they also provide materials for more extended compositions…I wrote several works in those scales.”
“Everybody warned me that only dyed-in-the-wool academics would touch the Thesaurus, but what actually happened was that academics did not care at all for it. So who picked it up? Jazz players!”
“I have interviewed McCoy Tyner, Coltrane’s pianist for a number of years, and he directly confirmed Coltrane’s use of the book. [According to Tyner,] Coltrane carried the book with him constantly during the years 1957 to ’59…He always took it with him when he travelled on concert tours, and…practiced it as part of his daily routine.”
Quoted in “Conversation with Nicolas Slonimsky about his composing” by Richard Kostelanetz (The musical quarterly LXXIV/3  pp. 458–72).
Today is Slonimsky’s 120th birthday! Below, selections from the Thesaurus played on electric guitar; a full open-source publication of the work is here.
BONUS: Coltrane’s Giant steps and Countdown, both of which are thought to have been influenced by Slonimsky’s Thesaurus.
Johannes Tinctoris: Complete theoretical works presents a complete new edition of Tinctoris’s treatises, along with full English translations and multiple layers of commentary material, covering a wide range of technical, historical, and critical issues arising from both the texts themselves and the wider context of Tinctoris’s life and the musical environment of early Renaissance Europe.
Combining the highest levels of historical, textual, and critical scholarship with innovative technological presentation, this open-access edition explores new methods of relating text-based materials to the numerous, often complex, music examples that punctuate the treatises.
The project, which is based at Birmingham Conservatoire, is an outgrowth of the ongoing research of Ronald Woodley into the life and works of Tinctoris.
Above, a depiction of Tinctoris at his desk; below, the Kyrie from his Missa L’homme armé.
In The music of the Temporalists by Andrei Covaciu-Pogorilowski (Charleston: Create space, 2011), a Parisian drugstore owner and amateur pianist experiences a two-year mental trip as an avatar in a parallel (Temporalist) world in which music is cultivated as the art of time rather than the art of sound.
There he meets a musicologist called Jean-Philippe and an old psychologist, Herr Sch…; they teach him all they can about their musical theory and its cognitive aspects so he can transmit what he has learned to his own music culture.
Within this imaginary frame an alternative to the classical bar-rhythm theory is proposed, based on an empirical study of key phenomena of temporal discretization, including entrainment, chunking, subjective accentuation, pulsatory inertia, and temporal gap perception.