Theory of Music

Due to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Music regrets to announce that we will not be accepting applications in fall 2020 for students hoping to begin studies at Penn in fall 2021. The School of Arts and Sciences has made this difficult decision in order to allow allocation of available support to current students who require extra time to complete their degrees as a result of the global pandemic. While we recognize that this news is disappointing, we also believe that this is the most responsible course of action in these unsettled times.  We anticipate that we will accept applications again in the fall of 2021 and welcome new students into our program in fall 2022.

We always love to hear from prospective students. Please feel free to reach out to our graduate chair, Dr. Jim Sykes ( with any questions.

Ecumenical in its geographic and temporal reach and capacious in its intellectual and topical concerns, Theory at Penn boldly resignifies, as it builds on and expands, the venerable empirical and speculative tradition of theoria. Overcoming entrenched associations with detached contemplation and abstract speculation, the resignification of theory is born out of a double conviction: first, that the spheres it studies— aurality, music, sound—and their multiple entanglements harbor ideas, concepts, and principles are inseparable from their practical existence and, second, that no adequate understanding of these spheres is possible without reflection on how their entanglements may congeal as aesthetic, affective, economic, material, political, and social realities throughout time and in space.

An intellectual disposition, more than a separate and autonomous subdiscipline, Theory designates a general mode of reflecting on the ideas, concepts, and principles of the disciplines within music and sound studies. It prioritizes slowing down the drive for answers by interrogating our motivations and agendas, preferred methods, favored narratives, and conditions of possibility. Practitioners of this mode of reflection work in the spirit of translation and aim to promote a greater horizontal conversation by forging shared critical languages. Such theoretical translation, in turn, fosters possibilities for transformation of disciplinary thinking, not the performance of “theoretical” authority or the instauration of master languages. Key to this disposition is a conjunctural vision of music studies that avoids predetermining the endless articulations of aurality, music, and the sonic, or even what these spheres are. Theory cultivates an ethos of intellectual and methodological hospitality: The practice and poetics of what things could be, not what they must or should be.

In this spirit, Theory at Penn complements the concerns of Ethnomusicology and Historical Musicology, part of the broad and distributed sense of Music Studies that our Ph.D. uniquely offers. In another sense, although sharing fundamental concerns with the humanities, Theory at Penn engages domains outside an exclusively human purview by questioning those forms of thought and practice that have defined the human in radical distinction to other forms of existence (e.g., human and parahuman, ontological and epistemic, material and affective, nature and culture, the given and the made). These forms urge investigation in a rapidly changing world in which pluriversals impinge on societies everywhere.

Theory does not prescribe the methodologies and disciplines that any inquiry may compel; students avail themselves of the broad range of expertise of the Department faculty and of Penn’s faculty as a whole. Theory fosters an intellectual space for gaining familiarity with and developing literacy in a number of existing “theories,” including, but not limited to, critical and philosophical approaches widely-used across the humanities and interpretive social sciences, as well as emerging frameworks. Seminars, including a dedicated pro-seminar in theory, explore various approaches to phenomenology, semiotics, structuralism, deconstruction, new materialism, affect, performativity and performance, genealogy and archaeology, political economy, feminism, sexuality, race, coloniality and decoloniality, empire, indigenous theories, ontologies and ontographies of the sonic, technics, the Anthropocene, deep history, and dialectics, among others. These are offered as a way to engage and experiment with issues of concern, sometimes anew, and to speculate with emerging challenges to music and sound studies today. Epistemically intersectional, this fluid approach seeks to promote new research initiatives, innovative modes of presenting historical and/or ethnographic research, and speculative thinking.

Seminars are organized topically to address ethnographic/anthropological, historical, and critical interests. Past seminars have included “Voice, Vocality, Vociferation,” “Bodies, Corporealities, and Embodiment,” “Materialisms,” “Ontologies of the Sonic,” “The Senses,” “Technics: Technologies and Techniques,” “Comparative Ontologies,” “Aurality and Deconstruction,” “Sound and Urban Space,” “The Ontological Stakes of Music and Sound,” “The Creole Archipelago: Sounding Decolonial Possibilities in the Caribbean,” “Musical Politics and the Forms of Life,” “History and the Affective Now,” “Sounding (out) Archives.”

Theory practitioners in the department strive to foster collaborative and creative spaces for contending with contemporary crises and fraught histories that persist in the present. They imagine with bell hooks that “theory could be a healing place,” or with Stuart Hall that theory is an inherently dialogical “set of contested, localized, and conjectural knowledges” open to materialization in practice. Linking analysis of matters of concern to speculation on how things could be otherwise, students have developed multimodal projects forging connections between seminar texts/media, their own interests, and the alternatives they envision. For example: films and video essays, collaborative performance, installation, instrument design, radio, and audio archiving. The forms and materialities of these projects emerge from the complexities with which they each grapple, not from a priori constraints imposed by intellectual demarcation. Students assemble their work imaginatively and rigorously by drawing on the wealth of resources at the Department and at Penn.

Recent graduates working with the framework of Theory at Penn include Delia Casadei (Assistant Prof. of Musicology, U. of California, Berkeley; Stephan Hammel (Assistant Prof. of Musicology, U. of California, Irvine); Maria Murphy (Musicology, Interim Associate Director at UPenn’s Alice Paul Center for Research on Gender, Sexuality and Women); Daniel Villegas (post-doctoral fellow in musicology, KU Leuven, Belgium). Current students are working on Northwestern Amazonian sound archives and modes of aurality; the effect of traumatic events in the making of and shifting audience relations to pop music; environmental sound activism in Northern Italy; the role of transnational and cosmopolitan institutions in producing Western art music in 20th C. China; retheorizing musical mattering in the face of ecological crises; and subjectivity and the political economies of virtuosity under late capitalism. Students present their work at conferences in music studies and other fields (anthropology, sound studies, environmental humanities), publish their written work in peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes, and share their multimodal projects in symposia and media festivals.

Through these efforts, theorists at Penn endeavor to reimagine the labor, methods, and outcomes of theoretical work in music and sound studies.