Teaching people to recognize the patterns that make
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
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
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
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
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.