Prof. Nicole Biamonte - On music theory: from Mozart to Marilyn Manson


Teaching people to recognize the patterns that make music pleasing

By Katherine Gombay

Nicole Biamonte wanted to write her PhD dissertation on the music of Rush, the Canadian rock group. But her professors at Yale convinced her that Beethoven was a safer bet. Now, the Schulich School of Music theory professor plays her students everything from Marilyn Manson to Miles Davis, by way of Vivaldi and Wagner, as she teaches them to recognize the patterns and rhythmic tensions that make music interesting.

Biamonte acknowledges that the idea of music theory, a compulsory class, doesn't always grab people. In fact, it wasn't what she wanted to do herself when she first started out in music.

Biamonte still remembers learning to play Swanee River on a toy piano when she was five or six. After piano lessons from "a little old lady who lived down the street," and time spent accompanying her high school chorus, she eventually enrolled in a degree in piano performance. But this is where she ran into problems.

She loved performing, and was always eager to get to the music. Too eager. "I took a lot of shortcuts," she says. I "didn't warm up slowly the way I was supposed to, I didn't play all the scales and arpeggios, and so I'd be struggling through these Beethoven movements that were harder and faster than I should have been playing."

As a result, Biamonte developed tendinitis, and this fact combined with her growing dislike of the pressure of competitions and being judged against others, which she describes as being "antithetical to the whole idea of what music should be about," led Biamonte to decide that she didn't want to do a graduate degree in performance.

Instead, Biamonte chose to pursue her interest in music theory. "I always had a bit of a mathematical bent, so what really appealed to me, and what I try to show people, is that a lot of music is about these patterns," Biamonte explains. And what makes the patterns interesting is that, for the most part, they're not quite symmetrical, and that turns out to be really important."

Biamonte frequently illustrates her point by moving over to the piano, whether it is to explain the unsettling atmosphere created by the whole-tone scale (a favourite of Debussy's and also used in lots of movie soundtracks for ghost or dream sequences), or to mimic the dramatic teaching techniques of one of her own music theory teachers. "Here is Beethoven in his dark and stormy C minor mood at the beginning of the Pathétique sonata, and here's another dark and stormy chord, and we're going to resolve it, but first we're only going to resolve part of it and that's not exactly what we expect to happen, so it keeps us hanging..." There is a sense that, for Biamonte, life is a seamless flow from words to music and back again.

Although she is enthusiastic about her work, Biamonte is also well aware that it's challenging to get others to share her passion. "I feel like people don't have the basic musical literacy that they had 50 or 100 years ago, so it's hard for them to engage with classical music because they don't have a sense of the large-scale narrative of the piece," she says. "Most classical music is this little drama where you establish your home key and your home theme, and you depart from it and go on this journey and eventually you bring it back again.

"And even though, on the surface, the way that popular and classical music are organized sounds different, the underlying principles are the same. It's just that in rock or pop music the patterns repeat themselves immediately, while in a sonata it may take ten minutes or more for a theme to return."

For Biamonte, explaining the essence of various musical patterns is clearly a whole lot of fun. And listening to her speak, it's hard not to share her enthusiasm.