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).
Above and 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.
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 2012 Praesens Verlag launched the series Wiener Veröffentlichungen zur Theorie und Interpretation der Musik with Im Schatten des Kunstwerks. I: Komponisten als Theoretiker in Wien vom 17. bis Anfang 19. Jahrhundert, edited by Dieter Torkewitz.
The book’s articles discuss Viennese composers from the 17th through the 19th centuries who were also theorists; future publications will cover other topics in Viennese music theory and interpretation.
The Western tonal system is founded on specific procedures for modulating from one key to another; the harmonic relationships involved have parallels in Western architecture’s classic proportional relationships, suggesting the idea of architectural modulation.
In the above examples, the floor plan on the left shows the width-to-length ratios of the principal spaces in a project from I Quattro libri dell’architettura by Andrea Palladio (1508–1580). The unexpected and somewhat disturbing angled wall of the rear courtyard space could function like a pivot chord, leading to the hypothetical addition shown on the right.
This according to “Modulation in music and architecture” by Radoslav Zuk, an essay included in Systems research in the arts. IV: Music, environmental design, and the choreography of space (Windsor: International Institute for Advanced Studies in Systems Research and Cybernetics, 2003, pp. 1–8).
Although the notion of pitches being relatively high or low was well-established by the first century C.E., when Pliny used the terms summus, medius, and imus, there is no evidence that earlier Greek theorists espoused this metaphor. The terms νήτη (nētē, “down-located”) and ὑπάτη (hypatē, “up-located”) were used, but they referred to the physical placement of kithara strings, not to a spatial concept of pitch; in fact, the higher the pitch in our terms, the further down-located it was on the instrument.
The commonest adjectives for pitch in ancient Greek writings are ὀξύς (oxys, “sharp, piercing”) and βαρύς (barys, “heavy”). Ptolemy wrote that the former quality was a result of λεπτότης (leptotēs, “fineness”) and πυκνότης (pyknotēs, “close spacing [of notes]”, and that the latter was caused by μανότης (manotēs, “thickness”) and παχύτης ( pachytēs, “loose spacing”) . The idea of higher and lower sounds, and their eventual depiction as such in notation, was a later development.
This according to “The development of vertical direction in the spatial representation of sound” by Eleonora Rocconi, an essay included in Archäologie früher Klangerzeugung und Tonordnung: Musikarchäologie in der Ägäis und Anatolien (Rahden: Leidorf, 2002), pp. 389–392.
Many thanks to David Bloom for help with this post!
Related article: The perfect-pitch puzzle
Founded in response to the excitement generated by the First International Conference on Analytical Approaches to World Music in 2010, Analytical approaches to world music (ISSN 2158-5296) brings together disciplines including music theory, ethnomusicology, musicology, cognitive psychology, computer science, and mathematics for a cross-cultural dialogue that aims to promote and enhance understanding of the diverse collection of traditions that is commonly referred to as world music.
Edited by Lawrence Shuster and Rob Schultz, the inaugural issue of this peer-reviewed online journal includes articles by Robert Morris, Sarah Weiss, David Locke, Richard Widdess, Jay Rahn, and Michael Tenzer.