Thomas Christensen


Avalon Foundation Professor of Music and the Humanities; Director of MA Program in the Humanities (MAPH)


Ph.D., Yale University, 1985


Office: Wieboldt 401
Phone: (773) 834-4181

Thomas Christensen’s scholarly research centers on the history of music theory. Fundamental to his work has been a desire to situate the many intellectual frames, arguments and linguistic models used by writers in the early modern period deeply within cultural discourses. Hence, as one example, Christensen’s 1993 monograph on Jean-Philippe Rameau attempts to analyze his music theory as a complex response to both the empirical as well as synthetic values of Enlightenment science. Other key articles have concerned the writings of the 17th-century savants, Marin Mersenne and Seth Calvisius, thorough-bass theory in the 18th century;  the reception of Rameau’s theories in Germany; problems in the historiography of music theory; and the history and social aesthetics of playing piano transcriptions in the 19th century. Many of these articles have recently been reprinted in a volume that was published in 2014 entitled “The Work of Music Theory.”  He has also attempted more synthetic surveys of historical music theory, particularly as editor of the Cambridge History of Western Music Theory (published in 2003;  translations into Macedonian and Chinese). 

Christensen’s research has received support and recognition over the years from a variety of academic associations and funding agencies.   In 2011-12, he spent a year as Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin.  Most recently, Christensen received Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation (2015) and the ACLS (2015) to support his present project on the music theory of the Belgian music scholar, Joseph Fétis, and its reception in the 19th-century.  An active citizen in the broader intellectual community of music scholars, Christensen has served as President of the Society for Music Theory (1999-2001) and worked for several decades to further collaborative ties with German and French colleagues in music.  

Recent Courses Taught

  • Musical Tonality
  • History of Music Theory
  • Advanced Tonal Analysis
  • Recent Trends in Stravinsky Analysis
  • Sonata Theory
  • Music and Science in the Early Modern Period.
  • Problems in Medieval Music Theory
  • "Reading" Bach
  • Rousseau and Music

Selected Publications

  • Fétis and the Tonal Imagination: Discourses of Tonalité in Nineteenth Century France (in preparation) University of Chicago Press.
  • The Work of Music Theory. London: Ashgate Press: 2014.
  • Cambridge History of Western Music Theory (general editor). Cambridge University Press, 2002 (Second, Paperback Edition, 2005); translations in Macedonian (2010) and Chinese (2011).
  • Aesthetics and the Art of Musical Composition in the German Enlightenment: Selected Writings of Johann Georg Sulzer and Heinrich Koch (co-authored and translated with Nancy Baker) Cambridge University Press, 1995 (Second Paperback Edition, 2007)
  • Rameau and Musical Thought in the Enlightenment. Cambridge University Press, 1993 (Second Paperback Edition, 2004).

Selected Articles

  • “Music Education,” The Cambridge History of Sixteenth-Century Music, eds. Iain Fenlon and Richard Wistreich (in press).
  • “Medieval Music Theory,” The Cambridge History of Medieval Music, ed. Mark Everist and Thomas Kelly (in press).
  • “Mishearing Rameau: Rameau’s Theory of Harmony in Eighteenth-Century Germany,” Rezeption und Kultur transfer: Deutsche und französische Musiktheorie nach Rameau, ed. Birger Petersen (in press).
  • “The Improvisatory Moment,” Con la Mente e con le Mani: Improvisations from “Cantare super Librum” to Partimenti, ed. Guido Massimiliano (in press).
  • “A Theorist for our Times,” Rameau Entre Art et Science, ed. Sylvie Bouissou (in press).
  • “Soundings Off Stage,” The Oxford Handbook of Opera, ed. Helen Greenwald. Oxford University Press, 2014), 899-920.
  • “Psophos, Sonus, and Klang: Towards a Genealogy of Sound Terminology,” Organized Sound: Sound and Perception in Twentieth- and Twenty-First Century Music, ed. Christian Utz (Saarbrücken: PFAU, 2013), 47-59.
  • “Hidden Theory/Fragile Texts.” Musica Humana 3/2 (2013), 177-207.
  • “The Sound World of Father Mersenne,” Structures of Feeling in Seventeenth-Century Cultural Expression, ed. Susan McClary. (University of Toronto Press, 2012), 60-89.