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26 April 2022 - 26 April 2022

3:00PM - 5:00PM

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Music department online research forum with Dr Danny Walden

Pitch Fundamentalism and the Colonisation of Pitch Space

Abstract: Why are music theorists and analysts so preoccupied with pitch?   It may seem curious to that the most widely followed approaches to music theory—Schenkerian analysis, Neo-Riemannian/transformational theory, set theory, etc.—all stake their central claims on pitch materials, disregarding (if not dismissing) the information contained in other parameters such as rhythm, timbre, or loudness.  Some ethnomusicologists and scientists trace the reasons for analytical pitch-centrism back to the “perceptual proclivities” of Western listeners (Fales 2002, et al.).  This talk however suggests an historical reason: that the current emphasis on pitch is the legacy of a nineteenth-century search for particular forms of “order,” “stability,” and “coherence” that aligned with the interests of colonial regimes. Drawing from a survey of late nineteenth-century acoustical treatises and the archives of Alexander John Ellis (1814-1890) and Alice Cunningham Fletcher (1838-1923), two of the first comparative musicologists, I examine how this search led to the development of an epistemological orientation I call pitch fundamentalism, while simultaneously supporting the conceptual underpinnings of topographical metaphors—and suggest that both of these analytical strategies were historically designed to interlock with the gears of colonial ideology.  I conclude by showing how versions of these strategies continue to shape scholarship today, and assess strategies for recalibrating our understanding of pitch in order to disengage with colonial frames.

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