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Department 1

Conservatory of Music


Over the past twenty-five years, the growth of the Internet has completely transformed journalism and media. «The relationship between new media and journalism», write Eugenia Siapera and Andreas Veglis, «has become a close embrace to the point where it is difficult to imagine an exclusively offline journalism» [Siapera-Veglis 2012, 1]. This relationship has not only seen existing publications - from traditional newspapers like The New York Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel to magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, and The London Review of Books - move partially or completely online; it has also seen the rapid rise of online-only publications. Some of these digital platforms (such as Slate, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, and so forth) mirror the structure of print media. Others take new, born-digital forms, often oriented around specific approaches to culture or current events. FiveThirtyEight, for example - deriving its name from the number of electoral votes contested in each American presidential election - analyzes politics, economics, culture, and sports from a statistical perspective. Vox (with its tagline, "Understand the News") focuses on providing context for current events, producing simple explanations of complex global and cultural phenomena, which it calls "Explainers". Still more publications cater to specific audiences of hobbyists or enthusiasts, reporting on topics from entertainment and gossip, to aviation, to business, to video games, to music, interior design, and fashion. Many online media companies (including Vice and Vox) run multiple "verticals": sub-websites devoted to specific topics of interest (from food and fashion to video games and real estate), hoping to compete with the many specialist websites and publications that now populate the Internet.

In addition to current events and commentary, many of the above publications devote substantial space to reporting on and analyzing popular culture, from music, to television and film, to comic books. And over the past few years, an increasing number of essays have appeared that appeal to music theory in particular as a grounding device. With two-part titles like "Skin Tight Jeans and Syncopation: Explaining the Genius of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream - Using Music Theory" [Pallett 2014a] and "Ecstatic Melodic Copulation: Explaining the Genius of Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ Using Music Theory" [Pallett 2014b], these essays sound almost as if they might be academic papers. But while these general-interest music theory essays have mastered the art of the enticing pre-colon hook, the present essay is more concerned with the second half of these titles: using music theory. By simultaneuously instrumentalizing music theory as a purely analytical tool, and treating it as if it were a unified body of knowledge, essays like these cast music theory as a secret decoder ring that is arcane and mysterious, and yet scientifically rigorous: the equivalent, so these titles argue, of the statistics that drive websites like FiveThirtyEight. This paper will explore the epistemological conditions under which both web-based subgenres like Vox’s "Explainers", and a distinct strain of popular print non-fiction by authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Jonah Lehrer, Steven Pinker, and others, have risen to prominence over the past decade. Those conditions, I will argue, have given rise to a wave of general-interest music theory, propagated mostly online. Such writings offer fascinating reflections upon music theory as it is practiced in the academy, particularly with regard to the growing pains and disciplinary debates of recent decades, and the growing movement within both musicology and theory to engage with non-specialist audiences via practices from the digital humanities and public humanities. While this essay focuses primarily on English-language websites and the articles they publish, I hope it proves a productive starting point for further research on music theory in general interest publications in other languages.

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