The final assignment is submitted. The grades are posted. The degree has been conferred. It’s official: I now have a Master of Arts degree in Music Theory!!! That being said, I don’t feel like a master of anything—instead, I have more questions than answers, and perhaps an even greater awareness of the infinitude of music.
We can never get to the bottom of it: why do these notes, rhythms, harmonies, time signatures, forms, and structures do what we sense them doing, and how can we describe them? How can we talk about them? How can we understand them? In one sense, it’s a futile pursuit; these (admittedly incomplete, artificial, and simplistic) categories would take multiple lifetimes to fully comprehend, and often overlap and intertwine and act in dialogue with one another to such an extent that words and speech and years of dedicated study cannot even begin to comprehend their nature, function, and larger significance.
On the other hand, knowing even just a tiny microcosm of what has been discovered about these qualities of music and building upon these discoveries can completely change how we hear, listen to, perceive, perform, study, write about, and read about music. It can, in a very real sense, be a life’s work. Being able to understand some of the compositional devices in a given piece can do wonders for the creativity and depth of our interpretations. Knowing how a given composer or musician’s work is situated within the larger story of music deepens our appreciation and ability to learn, perform, study, write about, and listen to the piece in ways that are cognizant of its performance practice, cultural context, historical precedent, and contemporary influence.
This interconnectedness of music with its broader contexts was a recurring theme throughout my graduate studies at Hunter College, and something that I greatly appreciate. Although my major was music theory, I also attended courses in a broad variety of musical disciplines, including musicology, ethnomusicology, orchestration, musicianship, style criticism, philosophies of musical identity, and research techniques. Of course, I preferred some of these topics over others, and there were times when these studies definitely pushed my musical comfort zones. However, studying these topics did lead me to acquire a wider perspective of music than I had before beginning my graduate studies, and also gave me more clarity about which topics I would (and would not) like to continue pursuing in my research.
Through writing, defending, and completing my thesis, I learned how to plan, structure, and finish a large-scale research project, something that I will continue to learn from going forward. I also learned several valuable lessons in the process:
(1) Front load the research portion of the project. Although I officially was working on the thesis during my final semester, I found and refined a topic, perused, gathered, and took notes on sources, and wrote an outline of the thesis several semesters earlier. This gave me the much needed time and space to really dig deep into my topic without the pressure of delivering measurable progress right away.
(2) Find a great mentor. I had the great fortune of having a wonderful thesis sponsor who guided me every step of the way, met with me every week, read numerous drafts of each chapter, and gave me invaluable advice in shaping the thesis from a vague outline to a finished project. Without his assistance and teaching, it would have been much more difficult to work on and finish my thesis in the timeline that I aspired to (and achieved).
(3) Research widely, deeply, and comprehensively, but be slow to come to definitive conclusions. For instance, my thesis compared and contrasted the Anna Magdalena Bach Manuscript of BWV 1009 with John W. Duarte’s arrangement for guitar of the same work. It was (and, to the best of my knowledge, is) the only study of its kind that specifically contrasts these two derivations of BWV 1009. However, while I initially thought that my conclusions regarding the Duarte arrangement’s idiomatic and historically informed approach were exciting, new, and groundbreaking, taking a deeper dive into the literature made this assertion laughable! There are, indeed, many existing (and fascinating) studies of other arrangements for guitar which make similar conclusions. While mine is the first to explore these two derivations of BWV 1009, it is by no means the only study to conclude that a given arrangement is idiomatic and considerate of historical performance practices.
Graduating with a masters feels strangely anticlimactic. It’s done. It’s over. Now on to the next project, the next job, the next thing. In many ways, it feels more like a beginning than an ending. Perhaps the start of a new beginning. I am deeply and profoundly grateful for everyone who has been a part of this journey, and so look forward to seeing what the future holds. Onward!