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    Analysis, theology, and expressive shaping of sound

    Dear Colleagues,

    I’m writing to ask for help finding literature on two seemingly unrelated topics.

    My first topic is music analysis and theology – specifically Christian theology, but as my focus will be largely methodological, interesting relations between music analysis and other theologies would also be good to hear about.  In looking at music analysis, I aim to cast a wide net, so not restricted to analysis of notated musical texts, for example, but I do exclude two things.  I am looking at specific configurations of musical sound, so theological perspectives on the materials of music in general (e.g. the Boethian tradition) are outside the bounds of my study.  I also exclude examinations of texted music whose theological connections are limited to the text itself.

    It’s a huge topic, and the results on RILM are overwhelming.  So I’m looking for pointers especially toward works that stand out for putting music analysis and theology into relationship in particularly insightful/interesting/idiosyncratic ways.  Please don't be bashful about drawing your own work to my attention!

    The second topic is the way in which specific performance inflections can steer the meaning and expression of music in one direction or another.  For example, how might a performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony take a position on its being either triumphant or sarcastic?  Or, how can a cover or a remix of a pop song change meaning and expression in relation to the original?  Especially as the literature on this topic is much smaller, I’d be happy to hear about insightful discussions of any kind, including in magazine articles, record reviews, etc.

    These are both in support of my work on the chapter on music analysis for the Oxford Handbook of Music and Christian Theology.  Many thanks in advance for replies, either public or private. 

    Best wishes,


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    • 9 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • You say that your second topic is small but there is a pretty substantial empirical literature on this question that might be relevant to you. Look at, e.g., Patrik Juslin's articles on the topic and his survey chapters in the Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology. You can give performers expressive instructions and analyze what they change in their articulation, tempo, etc., and also check whether the communication of expressive intent is successful by having listeners judge the performances. That might not be exactly what you're thinking about, but it is expressly about performer's expressive intentions and the parameters of expressive performance.

      --Jason Yust


    • I wrote a paper in grad school for my Irony in Music course discussing some of the Contessa's arias etc. in The Marriage of Figaro. Specifically, I looked at three pieces. For one, I was interested in the connection between one of her arias and an Agnus Dei from I believe the Coronation Mass. Another looked at the seriousness of her religious faith and whether the final forgiveness is to be seen as ironic or honest.

      I am looking for the paper as we speak (my drives have changed a number of times since I've last seen it), in case you are interested to take a look. It was never published, but it got a good grade, if I recall :)

      I am extremely interested in following this topic of discussion. I've long considered examining the use of music for service, such as liturgical or film music. Much of liturgical music hinges on the practical matters of ritual, but lex orandi, lex credendi, as they say.

      Edit: I've found the paper PDF, and would be happy to pass it along. I think it touches on the elements you are looking for, and may at least suggest avenues of exploration.

    • Hello John,

      Hands down the best theological perspective on specific configurations of musical sound that I have encountered is Beethoven and Freedom by Daniel K. L. Chua. It is, moreover, the best piece of writing on music, period, that I have ever read.



      P.S. I will be instituting my own version of your Wellness Wednesday series this fall, called Think for Yourself Thursday. Thank you for the inspiration!

    • John, on your second topic, see the final chapter of Jeffrey Swinkin's Performative Analysis, "Musical Structure(s) as Subtext: Resisting Schumann's 'Ring.'" Jeffrey discusses three ways to analyze and perform "Du Ring an meinem Finger."

      I wonder if any of the essays from Section IV "Performing Topics" of the Oxford Handbook of Topic Thepry might be of interest. Often literature on topic theory treats topic as a feature inherent in scores, rather than something a performer might play some role in choosing and foregrounding (or not).



    • John, two shameless plugs here.

      My 2020 SMT paper dealt with some ways in which performance can facilitate or impede the perception of certain topics (one of them being the hymn, which bridges your "seemingly unrelated" questions). You can find a print version here.

      Coincidentally, I have also written about relations between compositional strategies and spiritual/religious concepts—although not theology in a formal sense. This is in a chapter about spiritual heroism in late Beethoven, part of an edited volume that has been in the oven for quite some time. I can send you a pdf if you're interested.


    • I wrote about relations between music analysis and the values of Jewish communities in this article in the journal Analytical Approaches to World Music.


      I would be interested to see if anything from this approach could be applied in other relgiious contexts.

    • Hi, John.

      Here's an unabashed self-promotion of something for your first point.

      In 2013, I wrote an analysis of the beginning of Penderecki's Paradise Lost ("In the Beginning of Penderecki's Paradise Lost," twentieth-century music 10/2) in which, after citing a little Anselm and a little process theology, I associate Kierkegaard's "absolute paradox" (atemporal God becomes temporal Jesus Christ) with certain pitch structures likewise paradoxical from a perspective I had earlier developed to categorize Penderecki's melodic lines.

      I wish you well in writing your contribution to the Oxford Handbook of Music and Christian Theology!

    • Thanks for all of these great leads!  I'll be following up individually to the kind offers to share unpublished works.  I look forward to lots of good reading.

    • Hello John,

      I don’t know that it’s especially insightful, but the chapter on Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen in my book Performing Knowledge relates our analysis to theology. It is a side point in the overall argument, though difficult to avoid given the explicit connections that Messiaen makes.