Dissertation Index

Author: Kahrs, Noah L

Title: Composing (with) Theories of Acoustics and Pitch Perception After 1950

Institution: Eastman School of Music

Begun: April 2022

Completed: February 2024


This dissertation makes two distinct but related claims about how compositional theory and scientific accounts of sound have interacted in the recent past. First, a number of post-1950 compositions intervene into discourse around how pitches are generated and perceived, detaching acoustics and perception from the tonal norms they have historically been taken to support. Second, the attention to acoustics and perception modeled by such pieces provides a useful analytical strategy for a wide array of post-1950 compositions.

My dissertation has four chapters: an introduction and three analytical chapters following sounds’ paths from the air through the ear and into the brain. Chapter 1, an introduction, situates my claims not just in music theory and its histories but also in music cognition, sound studies, and musicological studies of experimental music. Chapter 2 reads several experimental works, including Alvin Lucier’s Exploration of the House and Maryanne Amacher’s “Chorale 1,” as unmooring triadic harmony from its ostensible acoustic foundations (in resonance and combination tones, respectively)—these compositions acoustically perform experimental music’s verbal critiques of norms surrounding Western music. Chapter 3 considers several hundred compositions that begin with unison openings, interpreting them as establishing a persistent schema that repurposes roughness and fusion (often taken as perceptual bases of dissonance and consonance) outside of tonal contexts. While some compositions, such as James Tenney’s Critical Band, explicitly reference (psycho)acoustics, the schema’s core features persist among hundreds of works from a variety of styles. Chapter 4 interprets Morton Feldman’s six-hour String Quartet No. 2 as encouraging statistical learning of the piece’s unique harmonic language. While statistical learning is most often presented as an account of culturally learned expectations in tonal music, I suggest that its underlying principles can generalize to non-tonal compositions under the right circumstances, helping listeners unlearn tonal norms.

Acoustics and perception of pitch, having long been theorized with reference to tonal materials, are too often taken to imply that tonality is uniquely “natural.” My dissertation counters such views: each of my three analytical chapters shows how the same aspects of pitch can support other musical possibilities.

Keywords: Corpus studies, Music analysis, Music perception, Psychoacoustics, Sound studies


1. Introduction
2. Electronic Music's Separation of Acoustics from Tonality
3. The Unison Opening as a Schema Thematizing Dissonance
4. Creating Contexts through statistics



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