Research Spotlight: Stephen Rodgers, Music Theory

Associate Professor of Music Theory Stephen Rodgers

March 3, 2014—Stephen Rodgers, associate professor of music theory, tells us a bit about his ongoing research for the School of Music and Dance website's inagural research spotlight.

What basic questions does your research seek to answer?

Questions that drive my research include, "How do poetry and music interact in song?", "What makes a song more than the sum of its parts?", and "How do song composers respond to the meaning, rhythm, and sound of words when they set those words to music?"

Most of my work focuses on songs written in the Romantic era (by Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz, Fanny Mendelssohn, and others), a period that saw an outpouring of song.

What makes your work interesting?

Fundamentally, I’m a music analyst, and music analysis can be a fairly specialized discipline, with its own vocabulary, techniques, and limited audience. I try to do music analysis in such a way that it might be of benefit to performers who want to communicate the beauty of this music to an audience, to composers who want to write their own songs, and to lay listeners who want to understand the music better. In addition to teaching and writing about music theory, I also compose songs, and I’m a singer, so I approach this repertoire from many different perspectives.

Looking closely at the technical aspects of a song—how its melodies unfold, how the rhythm of the music relates to the rhythm of the poetry, how a composer controls the timing and tension and flow of the music in response to the text—reveals a lot about what makes the song so expressive, why it moves us as it does. The music is meaningful not in spite of the details of its craftsmanship, but because of them.

What are you currently working on?

This spring, I have an article coming out in Music Theory Spectrum called “Text and Theme-Type in Die schöne Müllerin.” Basically, the article explores how the words of a poem influence composers’ decisions about the way their melodies are shaped. Certain types of poetic meters and rhyme schemes, in other words, seem to call forth certain types of melodies—and this is especially the case in Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin.

I’m currently writing and selecting music for a one-hour radio episode that will form part of a 52-week series hosted by the baritone Thomas Hampson. The series, Song: Mirror of the World, will explore song as a key to understanding the cultures from which it comes, drawing on song repertoire of the past 200 years, particularly the work of French, German, Italian, English, and American composers and poets. The episode I’m working on covers songs written between 1830 and 1848.

Another project, “The Fourth Dimension of a Song,” considers how composers respond to the sheer sound of language when they set words to music. That article is slated to appear in Music Theory Spectrum in the spring of 2015. Inspired by a recent article by the eminent literary critic M. H. Abrams called “The Fourth Dimension of a Poem,” which focuses on the physical sensation of reading poems aloud, my essay explores the diverse ways that songwriters musicalize the different speech-sounds—or phonemes—of poetry.

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