Beyond sound: Looking at the shape of music to understand composition

Kristen Wallentinsen, a Music Theory PhD student, is looking at mathematical representations of melodic contour, or shape, in music. She is currently working to apply her methodology toward the study of familial relationships within a wide variety of repertoires.

Krista Habermehl // Western NewsKristen Wallentinsen, a Music Theory PhD student, is looking at mathematical representations of melodic contour, or shape, in music. She is currently working to apply her methodology toward the study of familial relationships within a wide variety of repertoires.

When you sing “Happy Birthday,” chances are you aren’t thinking much about the “shape” of the cheerful song.

Music Theory PhD student Kristen Wallentinsen most definitely is.

Her research is focused on mathematical representations of melodic contour, or shape, in music. She is currently working to apply her methodology toward the study of familial relationships within a wide variety of repertoires.

“When you think about the ‘Happy Birthday’ song, it has a shape to it. It has a plateau and then goes up, and then back down, and then up and down again – we call that ‘melodic contour,’ the pattern of rise and fall,” said Wallentinsen. “I look at large families of melodies to see where the similarities and relationships are.

“The first line of ‘Happy Birthday’ and the second line are basically the same shape. Then the third line is different, although it still has an ascend, ascend and descend, so you can see there are relationships. That’s what my model does – it tracks where those relationships are and I use that to look at how composers create unity in their piece and how it makes a melody memorable for you.”

Wallentinsen’s research has been recognized by The Society for Music Theory with its first-ever SMT-40 Dissertation Fellowship. The $3,500 award is intended to recognize and foster excellent research in music theory by helping highly qualified PhD students complete their dissertations. She is on track to finish her dissertation by September.

“It blew my mind (to receive this award). I was really shocked because there are lots of really strong PhD candidates across North America,” said Wallentinsen, who completed her undergraduate degree in Arizona and her master’s in Massachusetts. “What I found very humbling and validating is they’re looking for work that has potential impact on a wide variety of types of music, and music theories. It was very nice to be recognized as someone who’s actually trying to think about that – to think a little more broadly about music.”

Catherine Nolan, Wallentinsen’s PhD supervisor and Associate Dean (Graduate Studies) at the Don Wright Faculty of Music, was  not surprised by her candidate’s recognition.

“I’m very proud of Kristen, and I am delighted to see her receive this recognition through the inaugural SMT-40 Dissertation Fellowship from the Society for Music Theory,” she said. “Kristen is an outstanding PhD candidate with a wonderful combination of academic excellence and outstanding leadership qualities.”

She continued, “Kristen possesses an unusual ability to conceptualize the fundamental musical parameter of melody and, more specifically, melodic contour as a cognitive, theoretical, and sonic phenomenon. Her formulation of a sophisticated tool for classifying families of melodic contours, within a continuum ranging from cohesiveness to development, makes an original and far-reaching contribution to the discipline of music theory.”

According to Wallentinsen, there are several exciting potential applications for her research. For example, in mainstream music, Wallentinsen’s theory can be used to understand how composers work with melody, and what they use to manipulate it and make it particularly compelling. It can also help determine regional differences in families of melodies – for example, Wallentinsen is using her theory as a detective tool to examine similarities and differences in Gregorian chants.

Finally, there are also potential applications in the realm of copyright. Her mathematical representation is a tool that can be used to measure the degree of similarity between melodies to determine if there’s a large amount of overlap in pieces, or if it’s not enough to infringe on someone else’s artistic rights. Think about the 2015 controversy with Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ song “Blurred Lines” and copyright infringement against Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up.”

Wallentinsen initially went to university for violin performance – an instrument she still plays today. However, during a rudimentary music theory class, she was encouraged to learn more about music theory.

“I came across an article on melodic contour and it spoke to exactly how I heard music. I must have read it five times. Here was somebody else talking about music in exactly the same way I felt it,” said Wallentinsen. “I just knew that I had to do this.”

Wallentinsen hopes to stay in academia once she graduates and is thankful for the support and encouragement she’s received here at Western. “I just can’t underscore enough how amazing the faculty here have been and how supportive in what they have done to help me get this far. I, for sure, wouldn’t have won this award if it weren’t for my advisors.”