Research Spotlight: Joon Park, Music Theory

Music theory doctoral student Joon Park

April 23, 2014—Joon Park, a doctoral student in music theory, tells us a bit about his ongoing research.

What basic questions does your research seek to answer?

In my research, I hope to answer questions that are widely applicable, such as: “How have we come to hear a melody as going up or down?”, “What social, historical, and technical influences are embedded in our current way of listening to music?”, and “How does music reflect society, and how does society hear music?”

My research begins with Greek antiquity to investigate the conditions in which musical thoughts were first written. Then I look at various historical moments of innovation (the Renaissance, the Romantic era, and the twenty-first century) to show the influence of technological development and social change on the way we think about music.

What makes your work interesting?

It is often said that music analysis provides a way into the composer’s mind. My work lies on the extension of this thought; instead of considering one particular composer, I look at music as a way into the ideology of the time. I believe that composers, compositions, and listeners all create and reflect their society in their own ways. This opens up a possibility to reflect on the society by investigating the inner workings of a particular composition or of a music-theoretical treatise. I am drawn to this possibility because it motivates me to be socially conscious while allowing me to do what I love, analyze music.

I have encountered many musicians (including myself) who spend countless hours working alone in a practice room. In an environment where musical mastery determines your career, it is easy to grow indifferent towards the society because practicing is essentially a solitary act. When I realized that the way I had been thinking about music during all that time alone was, in fact, informed and shaped by the outside world, I was fascinated with the music’s capacity to capture our culture. Through my work, I hope to empower musicians by presenting music’s role in a society.

What are you currently working on?

This fall, I will give a presentation called "The Monochord = (Motion + Space) = Musical Motion" at the Society for Music Theory national meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My talk will be on the Greek monochord (a single-stringed instrument to generate the proper musical pitches) and the crucial role it played at the dawn of Western culture. My claim is that the monochord shaped the way we hear music in terms of motion.

I am also currently preparing two articles. In one article, I draw a connection between the practice of jazz music and the recent trend in jazz analysis. I argue that the recent trend of visualizing chord progression is rooted on the jazz tradition’s privileging of sound over notation. Within a tradition that relies heavily on the lead-sheet notation and improvisation, the concept of a chord becomes, first and foremost, sonic in nature. In this article, I hope to show that the boundary between theory and practice may not be as clear as it is commonly assumed.

The other article is on the war music of an Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg. The two compositions, "Ode to Napoleon" and "The Survivor from Warsaw," demonstrate two different modes of musical criticism: satire and "high seriousness." Adopting literary theorist Northrop Frye’s archetypes on to the music of Schoenberg, I look at the composer’s changing view of the World War II and the different compositional techniques that portray the composer’s idea.