Ian Quinn

Ian Quinn's picture
Prof Music Dept
469 College St, New Haven, CT 06511-6609

Specializations: tonality and modality; computational modeling; history of tonal theory; music cognition; algebraic theory and analysis, especially neo-Riemannian and other transformational applications to harmony; American folk hymnody; minimalism and postminimalism; Ligeti.

About: Ian Quinn has degrees from Columbia University (B.A., 1993) and the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester (M.A., 1998; Ph.D., 2004). Before joining the Yale faculty, he taught at the University of Chicago and the University of Oregon. In 2008-09 he was a Residential Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford.

Quinn regularly teaches courses in new and historical theories of tonality, music cognition, computational modeling, and American vernacular music. Recent graduate seminars have included Ligeti, Corpus Methods in Music Research, and History of Music Theory.

Central themes of Quinn’s work are music cognition and the foundations of music-theoretic practice. His current project focuses on the history of the scale-degree concept, using computer-encoded musical corpora as the primary source of evidence. Historical theories and notations are treated with skepticism as imperfect attempts to represent implicit knowledge, which in turn can be read out of the corpus through techniques of machine learning and careful attention to representational ontologies. One of the aims of the project is to produce a new theory of tonality and modality that is both more empirically testable and less specific to so-called common-practice music than existing theories. Another is to use corpus analysis as a lens to critically evaluate historical theories, in hopes of providing an foundation for the analysis of early music that serves as an alternative to historicism. Quinn is currently developing a new entry-level music theory course based on this project, which teaches modal/tonal part-writing in a way that prepares students to engage deeply with a wide array of vernacular and classical styles.

His earlier work in mathematical music theory deals with the classification of the horizontal and vertical building blocks of music – melodies and chords – focusing on careful critique of the models mathematically-inclined music theorists have used in the last few decades. His theory of abstract (non-tonal) chord classification was published serially in Perspectives of New Music as “General Equal-Tempered Harmony” and won the Outstanding Publication Award from the Society for Music Theory in 2009. This article completes the project Quinn began with his article “Listening to Similarity Relations,” which won SMT’s Emerging Scholar Award in 2004. Related research in the mathematical modeling of voice leading, developed with collaborators Dmitri Tymoczko and Clifton Callender, was published in Science in 2008.

His current book project, tentatively titled Ludus Tonalis Novus: Fragments of a Secret History of Mode in the West, is a collection of excerpts from theory treatises of an imaginary past. This alternative universe is populated by a diverse array of imaginary and near-historical characters: Proslambanomene of Heraclea, a successor of Pythagoras; a Chinese envoy to the late Roman empire; Hildegard von Bingen, who wrote an Ordo modorum; an anonymous Moor whose Pentachordon appeared under the name Glareanus Africanus; an Anna Magdalena Bach who is taken in by Rameau and becomes a theorist of her own. This parallel world has music that sounds just like our own, though it is often notated and theorized quite differently — in systems inspired by corpus modeling and focused on the voice. Through this device, the collection makes an argument about the contingency of music notation and received theoretical concepts.

Quinn edited the Journal of Music Theory from 2004 to 2011 and serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Mathematics and Music, which launched in 2007. He was co-organizer (with Richard Cohn) of the 2009 meeting of the Society for Mathematics and Computation in Music. He serves on the executive committee of the Northeast Music Cognition Group (NEMCOG), which meets several times per year in New York, New Haven, and Boston. He also organizes the Yale-New Haven Regular Singing (YNHRS), a weekly shape-note singing group.

Dissertations advised:

  1. Liam Hynes (Music Theory, in progress): writing on historical aspects of the Phrygian cadence and the Picardy thirds
  2. Stefanie Acevedo (Music Theory, in progress): writing on harmonic function in American popular music, based on an EEG study and a corpus study
  3. Daniel Goldberg (Music Theory, 2017): Bulgarian Meter in Performance. Currently Assistant Professor in Residence, Dept. of Music, University of Connecticut.
  4. Andrew Jones (Music Theory, 2017): Harmony and Statistical Temporality: Toward Jazz Syntax from Corpus Analytics, co-supervised with Brian Kane. Currently Data Analyst at Knewton.
  5. Matthew Schullman (Music Theory, 2016): Rethinking Patterns: Associative Formal Analysis and Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas. Currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Music, University of Oklahoma.
  6. Joseph Salem (Music History, 2014): Boulez Revised: Compositional Process as Aesthetic Critique in the Composer’s Formative Works. Currently Assistant Professor of Music, University of Victoria.
  7. Christopher Wm. White (Music Theory, 2013):  Some Statistical Properties of Tonal Harmony, 1650–1900. Currently Assistant Professor of Music Theory, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
  8. Kristen Peter Shaffer (Music Theory, 2011): “Neither Tonal nor Atonal”?: Harmony and Harmonic Syntax in György Ligeti’s Late Triadic Works. Currently Instructional Technology Specialist and Adjunct Instructor of Computer Science, University of Mary Washington.
Music Theory
Appointment Type: 
Graduate faculty
Undergraduate faculty