February 27, 2024
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#1 - Introduction

Behind the Score #1
Introduction – Music, Meaning, and Me

Music surrounds us. It energizes and motivates us in our daily lives, moves us and affects our mood and emotions, and expresses a core part of our individual identities. When we hear music in a movie, over the radio, or even in a YouTube ad, we instantly recognize the tone it sets, and it may even call to mind expectations and associations about the story or content. We often talk about “sad,” “energetic,” “epic,” “intense,” “romantic,” “contemplative,” “nostalgic,” or “workout” music. For many, hearing a favorite song or piece of music may bring forth joy, tears, spontaneous dancing – even experience of the transcendent.

But what is it about music that gives it such power? How can music speak so universally to our hearts and be so deeply woven into our lives?

This blog, “Behind the Score,” is dedicated to shedding light on these (and more) questions – the significance music has to human lives and society, beyond the technical details of notes, rhythms, and chords. We will be exploring crucial questions like:

Why does music matter?

Does music have meaning?

How does music mean? What strategies do composers use to encode musical meaning?

How do we listen to music? How can we interpret meaning in music?

What unique meanings may be communicated through genres or media like video game music or contemporary music?

What role does music play in how we understand important topics like gender, race, religion, history, and culture?

I hope you will join me as I share my thoughts and research, to help us understand the mystery of music a little better.

About the Blog:

“Behind the Score” is a platform to present my scholarly research in an accessible form – before or outside of publication in articles, books, and/or conference presentations, since I know many people do not have easy access to these resources. (By the way, this also helps me process my current research and set my thoughts down into writing, which is good for deadlines.) Possible post types include: 1) updates presenting current research, 2) summarizing past research, 3) book reviews/responses, 4) semiotic analyses of a music piece or track, or 5) overviews of important concepts like intertextuality, authenticity, or exoticism. Each post will be pretty bite-sized, so for larger topics you can expect a series of posts. While the content of this blog will be music research at a scholarly level, my aim is to write in an accessible way that music laypeople and scholars alike can understand and enjoy. Though I reserve the privilege to write on any relevant topic that I am researching, the blog will mostly focus on three main strands: 1) music semiotics, 2) contemporary music, and 3) ludomusicology.

Put simply, music semiotics is the study of music and meaning. Semiotics comes from the Greek word meaning “sign”: sēmeion (σημεῖον). So semiotics aims to study anything that is understandable as a sign – in other words, anything that people find meaningful. Therefore, music semiotics examines and explains the various ways that music encodes and communicates meaning to its listeners, weaving together cultural values, composer intentions, and conventional expectations.

The music that I create as a living composer trained in the “classical” concert music tradition goes by many names – “new music,” “contemporary music,” “avant-garde music” – none of which are entirely satisfactory. Out of these, “music by living composers” is probably the best term – though, since it is a bit of a mouthful, I'll use contemporary music unless a better option comes along. What I love most about contemporary music pieces is that they are created by composers closer to our own time and context. Because of this, the meanings encoded in their works are often directly relevant to our lives. While music of the past may speak to the universals of human experience, contemporary music often addresses specific meanings in addition to universal ones.

Ludomusicology is a fancy academic word for studying music in video games. In music theory and musicology, ludomusicology is a rapidly growing subdiscipline with some of the most productive, relevant, and entertaining research. In fact, a majority of my own publications and presentations are in this exciting, expanding field! Valued at $43.4 billion and involving 75% of households in the United States, the video game industry is one of the fastest-growing in the entire world. Video game music lies at the unique intersection of narrative, interactive immersion, and conventional musical meanings, making it an especially fruitful medium for music semiotics.

As a heads-up, my website in its current format does not support comments, so any responses or feedback should be sent to thomasbyee@gmail.com or in the comments under my Facebook thread linking to the post. Since I'm sure to present some things incorrectly or incompletely along the way, I value the opportunity to dialogue with my readers.

About Me:

I am a scholar who blends the roles of composer and music theorist, equally at home creating my own music or writing and teaching about others' music. My main areas of theoretical research are in music semiotics, contemporary music by living composers, and video game music (ludomusicology). My BA, MM, and DMA degrees are in music composition, with a majority of my elective coursework completed in music theory. I also have a BA in Creative Writing, which fuels my lifelong love of poetry and special love for vocal musical works. I am a part of the music theory faculty at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where I am continually amazed by my students and faculty colleagues and learn from them daily. You can check out my compositional work at http://thomasbyee.com/audio-video.

Next Time:

#2: A New Frontier – A Brief Overview of Music Semiotics

This post will present a brief history of music semiotics and the “New Musicology” movement, telling the story of the obstacles music semiotics faced from the philosophy of formalism in the early- to mid-1900s, the work of important pioneers bringing discussion of musical meaning into the academic mainstream, and what this all means for musicians and listeners in the 21st century.

What topics do you want to see covered in this blog? Let me know at thomasbyee@gmail.com or in the Facebook comments!