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Researcher of the Month
Linguistics major, Music minor, Class of 2011
URECA Summer Program 2010, Linguistics Department Honors Program
Research Mentor: Dr. Daniel Finer, Linguistics
“I don’t think I could have done this project at all if I wasn’t passionate about it!”
Just how harmoniously this project connects her passions is abundantly clear to anyone listening to URECA's Researcher of the Month, Nicole Calma. A trained vocalist/soprano, Nicole is fond of both the "nuts and bolts" of music theory as well as linguistics: “....one of the first courses that I took was phonetics with Prof. Huffman. And I completely fell in love with learning how to make all the sounds in different languages. It was an excellent class. I declared my major very soon after that.” When Nicole attended the Linguistics Lectures series talk on text setting & folk music by Dr. Bruce Hayes of UCLA last fall, ideas for a possible undergraduate research project started to unfold. Soon after, Nicole contacted Prof. Daniel Finer of the Linguistics Department and with him began designing an interdisciplinary research project which applies Optimality Theory (OT) , a theory in linguistics that accounts for cross linguistic differences in grammatical structure, to music. In particular, the project aimed to explore rules of jazz and classical music according to OT.
Nicole's two-part experiment involves “composition task” and “listening task” data analysis, looking at how musical rules in classical and jazz music maybe be categorized as “constraints” which could be ranked to create a “grammar” for each style. With URECA support (summer 2010), Nicole has already collected much data from composer/listener participants, and will continue to develop the project in the coming year as she completes an honors thesis in Linguistics. Nicole is very grateful for all the support she’s been given by her Linguistics Profs. Ellen Broselow, Daniel Finer, Marie Huffman, Lori Repetti. She also is indebted to Prof. Peter Winkler and Ryan Minor of the Department of Music, whose music history classes (opera history, a history of popular music, a history of jazz) have informed her knowledge of specific genres/styles of music. Thinking about how the research connects two of her primary interests, Nicole reflects: “I tend to see things in a very interdisciplinary way. It always fascinates me the connections between different areas.. …So to have the opportunity to integrate them and do an interdisciplinary project involving music theory and linguistics was really excellent.”
Prior to transferring to SB, Nicole had studied music at C.W. Post and completed an online course in Ear Training and Harmony through Berklee College of Music. She has participated in many local and campus theatrical/musical productions, including “Godspell” (2010), “The Vagina Monologues” (SB, 2009, 2010), Pocket Theater, etc. Nicole is a member of The Pipettes, and the Stony Brook University Chorale as well as a member of the Golden Key and Sigma Beta Honor Societies. Nicole plans to apply to graduate programs in Music Theory and History. Below are excerpts of Nicole's interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen:Tell me a little about your research, what you worked on this summer.
Nicole: My project explores the rules of jazz and classical music according to Optimality Theory. There were actually two parts to my research this summer, a reinterpretation part, and a listening part. In the first part, I gave jazz musicians/composers a classical piece and had them reinterpret it. And vice versa, with classical musicians getting a jazz piece and reinterpreting ... I gathered data, looking across and between the styles, at the similarities of what they did. For example, two of the jazz musicians eliminated a chord and revoiced a chord in almost the same exact way. …The second part of the research involved listener participants. I had a bunch of musical selections which I played for listener participants who would listen to the music samples, and rate/answer questions. I got preferences and tendencies in what people thought sounded more classical or more jazz in nature. There were a couple of answers when either all — or all but one person — agreed on one choice, which was very exciting. Part of the next step, then, is taking apart those findings, looking at why there are such strong tendencies in how people responded to the music selections. Music was analyzed in terms of Sound, Harmony, Melody, Rhythm, and Growth (LaRue’s Guidelines for Style Analysis, 1992). I’m starting my senior thesis this semester and I’m looking to continue this project.
Tell me how you developed the initial idea, what inspired the research.
This was my first real experience with hands on research and running experiments. But I definitely had some things that I was springboarding off of . . I had a background in music/music theory, and I’d seen a lot of parallels in how the theory that we’re using in linguistics could be applied to music theory. Last year, Prof. Bruce Hayes of UCLA had come and done a talk for the Linguistics department on text setting, mostly with folk music. It was during that talk that I started really thinking about these parallels with music theory and Optimality Theory. That talk in a way started churning the ideas for this project… I’d also read a couple of papers by Prof. Elaine Chew of USC who is doing work with mathematics and music and computer-generated accompaniments. To know that someone was looking at things that were overlapping, on the edges of what I’m exploring in my project, was definitely helpful. When I talked to one of my Linguistics professors, Prof. Ellen Broselow, about my ideas for research, she recommended that I talk to Prof. Finer who ended up being my mentor. Prof. Broselow also mentioned URECA to me.
Tell me about your mentor.
He really helped me. We were able to work together, bouncing ideas off each other as a team. For both of us, it was a new kind of project. But being able to meet, being able to bounce ideas off of each other, point out things about the experiments and how we were setting it up or how we were interpreting things really was an excellent opportunity.
I’ve been fortunate to have supportive teachers wherever I've gone – in elementary school, high school, and college too. Maybe I’m spoiled being in a small department (Linguistics), and I know from friends that it happens in bigger departments too. But I do being think that the interaction between students and professors is so important. Being able to interact and to share your ideas and your passions— it's powerful that connection.
Is any one from the Music Department helping you too?
I have discussed my project with one or two of the faculty members. I had met last semester with Prof. Peter Winkler. I was taking his Popular Music class at the time, so we were talking a lot about different styles and genres. It was very helpful to be able to talk to him. I sent him my abstract. He made some suggestions. I remember being relieved that one of the books he recommended to me I had already taken out from the library and started thinking about. That reinforced to me that I was going in the right direction ….
From the experiments you did with listening/reinterpretation you did this summer,
what surprised you? Did you find out anything that you didn’t expect to find?
There were some definite unexpected results. I’m a singer. So I do a lot with melody. I expected melody to have A LOT to do with how people differentiated between styles. But what the research is showing so far is that rhythm comes much more into play especially when defining classical music. Some of the quicker movements, strings of sixteenth notes and things like that — that was really what our participants were picking up on.
Do you have a strong background in music?
I started off as a Music major before I transferred to SB. I had completed an online certificate in ear training. I’ve always loved music. I always sang. In high school I’d taken a theory class and music appreciation and early on realized that I enjoy learning about the nuts and bolts of it.
And how did you come to find your current major, linguistics?
I knew I liked language. I’m a vocalist. So as a vocal performance major, in my voice lessons, my teacher had worked a lot on diction. We used the international phonetic alphabet. I had to learn that. When I came to SB, one of the first courses that I took was phonetics with Prof. Marie Huffman. And I completely fell in love with learning how to make all the sounds in different languages. It was an excellent class. I declared my major very soon after that. Also, as a linguistics major, we get to talk about different languages, and interactions between languages, interactions between cultures, and language and culture. It’s those connections in which I sit very comfortably — those connections which fascinate me.
Is it difficult with a project such as this to narrow the focus?
That was really one of the main things I needed Prof. Finer’s help with. When I was getting ready to set up the listening project, and I had completed the reinterpretation part, I came to him with all of this data, and I remember thinking: “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know where to start…” And part of his advice was to focus, to look at it and see what’s most interesting. Pick something and go from there. I remember feeling that pressure about what to pick. I didn’t want to leave out something important. There was a lot of data in front of me. And it was a bit challenging to figure what to do, how to proceed.
What would you say was the most challenging aspect of your project?
I think the most challenging thing is more about the process than about a particular obstacle that I ran into. As someone new to research, getting that feeling of “I’m not sure if there’s a floor underneath my feet…”..and the uncertainty of it all — but then learning to feel comfortable with that, how to move forward in spite of it and be okay with the uncertainty and even enjoy it at times— that was the challenge! I needed to let the answers come, let the surprising findings come. Looking back now on it, it’s really probably the only way you can learn how to perform research – to go through that process of facing that unknown, not knowing what you’re doing. Being tossed into this research project was a huge learning experience for me: finding out how and when to alter the design, sometimes letting yourself go in a different direction than you expected.
What excited you about the research?
The first couple of times when I had someone do one of the reinterpretations, and I listened to it… I could hear what they were doing. Certainly when I was looking at the transcriptions and saw how these musicians revoiced this chord in the same way—this was exactly what I was looking for... Things like that…There were a couple of the listening sections too where there were strong tendencies, and where it was affirming, that “Yes you’re going in the right direction. There is something there!”
What advice would you give to students embarking on research?
I don’t think I could have done this project at all if I wasn’t passionate about it. I think it’s very important not to lose your passion. It’s important not to forget why you chose your major, or how you got to this point, and to let your passions guide you. If you follow that, and know that you really want to be here, and that you’re going to be able to work through those obstacles, I think it helps you not to lose heart. When you’re thinking “This isn’t working, this isn’t coming out the way I thought it would…”, you really need that passion to keep yourself going. I think that's true whether you’re in sciences or music....
It’s great that you took the initiative to follow through with your project!
This whole project has been a great opportunity for me. I'm very excited. At first, I wasn’t sure what people were going to think of it. But everyone has been interested, accepting and helpful. I’ve really gotten an overwhelming amount of support for it, especially within the linguistics department. To be able to work with a lot of my professors on something that I’m passionate about — even though it’s interdisciplinary, and falls a little outside of what we’re doing in the department has been excellent. Also, it was an amzing opportunity to have something that you’re passionate about and have someone say "here , go do it. You have an idea. Run with it."