Weeks 3–5: Topic Theory

"Landscape with a Hunt," Aelbert Cuyp

Sep 5: Topics in Classical music

Topic theory was originally developed as a methodology for the analysis of Classical music. Most music-and-media literature builds on topics in a Classical context. Plus, this will be useful for those of you interested in Classical music.

Reading (due Wednesday before class)

  • Chapter 2 of Agawu (1991)
  • Chapter 3 of Klein (2005)

Guest expert: Noel Torres-Rivera (Assistant Professor of Music Theory, University of Missouri, Kansas City)

Writing due Saturday at noon

Write a paragraph on how Classical topics may or may not map onto modern media scores. Refer to the “universe of topic” given by Agawu (1991, 30). Pick three of them and explain what kinds of narrative action, setting, or characterization they suggest to you. You can refer to specific media if you like to help your explanation (for example, “the opera buffa topic reminds me of the scene in Miss Congeniality where …”). Save as a PDF and upload to your homework submit folder.

Sep 12: Topics in Video Game Music

Topic theory applies easily to video game music, where the topic can be used to quickly establish setting and alert the player to different kinds of events.

Reading (due Wednesday before class)

  • Atkinson (2019)
  • Lavengood and Williams (under review)

Writing due Saturday at noon

Complete the worksheet below. This worksheet gives you four groups of five recordings that all are meant to illustrate a specific location-based topic. Try to identify the probable location, and list the musical features that support that identification. Save as a PDF and upload to your homework submit folder.

Sep 19: Topics in Film

Topics have a long history in film music, going all the way back to silent films where an organist would improvise a score to the movie.

Reading (due Wednesday before class)

  • Bourne (2021)
  • van Elferen (2013)

Writing due Saturday at noon

This week, keep a listening journal of film, TV, or video game music that you encounter in your daily life. Write down the topics you hear and a few musical features that project that topic. You can re-use topics we identified in class or invent your own. Try to get at least 5 different examples. Save as a PDF and upload to your homework submit folder.


Readings are always available in the Readings folder on Teams.

  • Agawu, V. Kofi. 1991. Playing with Signs: A Semiotic Interpretation of Classic Music. Princeton: University of Princeton Press.
  • Atkinson, Sean E. 2019. “Soaring Through the Sky: Topics and Tropes in Video Game Music.” Music Theory Online 25 (2). https://doi.org/10.30535/mto.25.2.1.
  • Bourne, Janet. 2021. “Hearing Film Music Topics Outside the Movie Theatre: Listening Cinematically to Pastorals.” In The Oxford Handbook of Cinematic Listening, by Janet Bourne, edited by Carlo Cenciarelli, 548–74. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190853617.013.15.
  • Klein, Michael Leslie. 2005. Intertextuality in Western Art Music. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  • Lavengood, Megan, and Evan Williams. Under review. “The Common Cold: Using Computational Musicology to Define the Winter Topic in Video Game Music.”
  • van Elferen, Isabella. 2013. “Fantasy Music: Epic Soundtracks, Magical Instruments, Musical Metaphysics.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 24 (1): 4–24.