Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Jeff Nichols

Committee Members

Joseph N. Straus

Philip Lambert

L. Poundie Burstein

Subject Categories

Musicology | Music Theory


post-tonal theory, pitch structure, phenomenology, semiotics, music and meaning, dialogism


This dissertation is about tone presence, or how musical tone shows up for experience in twentieth-century music. In exploring the subject of tone presence, I rethink notions of “pitch structure” in post-tonal theory and offer an alternative that focuses on the question of what it is to be a musical interval for experience, drawing on a wide range of research from social theory, semiotics, theories of emotion, African American studies, literary theory, usage-based linguistics, post-colonial theory, and phenomenology. I begin by offering a critique of three basic assumptions that constrain understandings of what we mean by pitch structure in post-tonal theory: that pitch structure concerns “intrinsic” properties of collections, that pitch is an autonomous parameter, and that pitch structure is best analyzed at the “neutral level.” Following this critique, I offer an alternative account of musical intervals that suggests that intervals cannot be reduced to a discrete quantity measured in semitones. I argue instead, that what it is to be an interval are all those conditions (in terms of culture, expression, musical form, motivic behavior, etc.) under which an interval becomes intelligible as such for experience. Such conditions include our concerned involvement with holistic situations and, following ideas rooted in Bakhtinian dialogism, our responsive understanding of “alien” understandings of the “same” interval. The understanding of what I describe as the modes of being of musical intervals is illustrated in an extended analytical case study of what it is to be an “authentic” atonal tritone in tonal and modal environments. Building on this account of the modes of being of musical intervals, I reexamine semiotic approaches to musical meaning, exemplified by topic theory, that treat musical meaning as a represented entity (i.e., a sign) that associates the “music itself” with “extramusical” meaning. Specifically, I offer an account that treats musical meaning as a social process (rather than an entity) in which cultural forms of meaning act as the ground that helps make musical tones—the “figure” in this gestalt metaphor—intelligible as such. The last chapter features an extended analysis of tone presence in Messiaen’s “Demeurer dans l’Amour” from Éclairs sur l’au-delà.