Research@Schulich: Thomas Posen

Thomas Posen is a PhD student in music theory, and is presenting his paper “The Symbiotic Evolution of Modes and Psalm Tones” at the Modes, Church Tones, Tonality: Tonal Spaces c. 1550-c.1720 conference in Ferrara, Italy this November.

All rights reservedOriginally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Thomas Posen is a third-year music theory Ph.D. student at McGill University, working with advisors Peter Schubert and William Caplin. Prior to McGill, Thomas completed a dual concentration M.M. in music theory and piano performance at the University of New Mexico, where he also completed a B.A. in physics and astrophysics and B.M. in piano performance.

His primary research interests include: the history of music theory, classical form, sketch studies and compositional process in Beethoven, partimento and thoroughbass, and the music of 20th century American composers. His master’s thesis explored post-tonal structures and serialism in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. He has presented his research at multiple conferences including the Society of Music Theory, New York Society of Music Theory, the New England Conference of Music Theory, Music Theory Midwest, the Rocky Mountain Society of Music Theory, the Opera and Musical Theater in the United States, and others.


What made you choose McGill for your studies?

I chose McGill because it has an incredible music theory program. The large and specialized music theory faculty have allowed me to explore a variety of research topics in great detail. It has also been a rewarding experience to teach music theory at McGill. I value the historically informed pedagogical approaches throughout the curriculum. I also chose McGill for its location: I love the culturally rich, bilingual, and highly stimulating city of Montréal.

How has being a McGill student influenced you and your research?

Studying music theory at McGill has been a highly rewarding experience. The music theory faculty are world class and the collegiate atmosphere among my peers is stimulating. McGill has been the perfect place for me to broaden my interests while also delving deeper into topics that interest me.

Briefly explain your research:

My research revises how we understand the origin of the major and minor keys. In more detail, it outlines the path from mode and psalmody to our modern major and minor keys from c. 1500 to c. 1720. It clarifies the evolving and sometimes complicated relationship between an evolving set of modes - a set of abstract music scale systems that originated in the Greeks that were further developed in the middle ages and renaissance - with the psalm tones - a set of plainchant melodic formulas used in daily prayer by the Catholic church.

To give you a brief glimpse, the first image below shows the eight ending formulas of the psalm tones from Johannes Cochlaeus’s Tetrachordum Musicae of 1511, and the second image shows the twelve modes from the Dodecachordon of 1547 by Heinrich Glarean, a student of Cochlaeus. These two systems evolve together and are essential ingredients for beginning the path to the major and minor keys.

All rights reserved

All rights reserved

What led you to this particular topic?

In its earliest stages, this paper began as an attempt to solve what one might call an “argument” between a modern 20th-century scholar and a late 17th-century scholar about the origin of the eight common keys that eventually become the modern major and minor keys in the early 18th century. The 17th century scholar explained that the church keys arose from the modes, while the 20th-century scholar claimed they resulted from psalmody.

At first, I found myself disagreeing with the modern scholar and put it upon myself to defend, if possible, the argument of the 17th-century scholar by finding earlier evidence. After paging through many 15th, 16th, and 17th-century treatises, I discovered that the modern scholar and the 17th-century scholar were both correct - and thus, simultaneously incorrect. Both scholars presented a key piece to the origin story of major and minor keys, but each failed to recognize how their puzzle pieces fit together. In the end, what began as a defence for the 17th-century scholar turned into a reconciliation between the two.

How does your research add to what was already known?

Prior scholarship that explored the origin of our major and minor keys overly separated the psalm tones from the modes and in the process downplayed their evolving and symbiotic relationship. Separating the two systems resulted in incomplete accounts of both, which resulted in a number of inconsistencies and contradicting viewpoints. My research shows that our major and minor keys resulted from the symbiotic evolution of mode and psalmody, not from either alone. As a result, the early path to our major and minor keys did not begin at the turn of the 17th century in Adriano Banchieri’s “church keys” as scholars originally thought, but much earlier by theorists who sought to reconcile changes to the psalm tones and modal theory.

Were there any findings that you found particularly surprising?

The entanglement between a modified set of modes and psalm tone formulas began much earlier than I thought.

What are the practical implications of your research?

My research will benefit people interested in the origin and evolution of our musical systems. In addition, along with revising our understanding of the path from mode and psalmody to the major and minor keys, it may stimulate new approaches to analysing 16th and 17th century music.

What are your next steps? 

Before I graduate at the end of Winter 2021, I plan to submit several revised articles that I have presented at conferences for publication, including the paper highlighted in this article, and articles on Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and George Gershwin. For my dissertation, I am planning a large-scale study of Beethoven’s extant sketches to the first movements of his symphonies with form-functional theory. I seek to better understand how Beethoven planned and designed his symphonies, and I believe form-functional theory offers a powerful theoretical framework for doing so. After graduation, I will pursue an academic career in music theory as a professor.

What advice would you give to new students in your program?

Develop your curiosity and work relentlessly to fulfil it.


Where is your favourite place to study?

On a warm sunny day, I love reading near the beautiful fountain at Square Saint Louis in the Plateau. On a snowy winter day, you’ll find me in the Schulich music library or in my cosy Plateau apartment.

Where in Montreal can you be found on a day off?

On a day off, I like exploring the city - especially when it involves trying a new ice cream, pastry, or local beer.

What is your earliest musical memory?

I will always remember turning around to face the standing ovation I received after playing the piano in my fifth-grade talent show. I am thankful my parents and friends convinced me to play!

If you hadn’t ended up in music, what would your alternate career path have been?

I probably would have pursued a career in theoretical physics.

What was the last book you read?

Besides a number of music theory books, I am currently enjoying Migeul de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (in English).

If you were offered a return plane ticket to anywhere in the world, where would you go, and why?

I would go to Italy (again) because of the rich history related to my interests. And the coffee, pasta, and pizza…

If you could invite any four notable figures from history to a dinner party, who would they be?

I would invite Beethoven, Alfred Einstein, Aristotle, and Victor Borge.