Scholar Spotlight

Trevor de Clercq

Dr. Trevor de Clercq is an associate professor in the Department of Recording Industry, where he serves as coordinator for the musicianship curriculum and teaches classes in music technology and audio theory.

He serves as the department’s Faculty Senator and has been a member of the university’s Academic Misconduct Committee and the Faculty Senate’s Finance and Personnel Subcommittee. He participated in the university’s General Education Redesign and serves as the chair of the department’s scholarship committee and oversees the department’s Major Field Test.

He has a bachelor’s degree in music theory and composition from Cornell University, a master’s degree in music technology from New York University, an AAS in electronic engineering technology from the Cleveland Institute of Electronics and a master’s and Ph.D. in music theory from the Eastman School of Music.

He has previously taught at Ithaca College, Hofstra University, Adelphi University, the Eastman School of Music, and the University of Rochester.

He is a prolific researcher and writer, so a list of his publications and presentation is too long to include here. But I am sure if you ask him for a link to his work, he will gladly share!

His primary areas of research include the theory and analysis of popular music, statistical studies of music, recording technology, and music cognition. His work has been published in numerous academic journals—including Popular Music, Music Theory Online, the Journal of Music TheoryMusic Theory SpectrumEmpirical Musicology Review, the Journal of New Music ResearchMusic Theory and Analysis, and the Dutch Journal of Music Theory—and he has presented at various regional, national, and international conferences on music theory, music cognition, and music pedagogy. His Nashville Number System Fake Book was published by Hal Leonard in 2015.

Trevor, who is a songwriter who has self-published 10 albums of his songs, has written music for film, stage and radio, including works for NPR and PRI. His rendition of “Silent Night” was included as diegetic music in the film Fahrenheit 9/11. He plays piano, guitar, bass and cello, and knows his way around a banjo and mandolin.

His music industry experience in New York includes Sony Music Studios, Greene Street Recording and Jarvis Studios. He worked as senior technician at Right Track Recording, where he worked on projects for Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, Pat Metheny, Nas, the Kronos Quartet, Rod Stewart, and James Taylor. He also worked as technical specialist for audio and video at The New School, where he designed, installed, and maintained three recording studios, four video editing suites, thirteen multimedia classrooms, and numerous computer workstations. 

He spoke to Beverly Keel about his research, publications and online teaching.

  • How is this semester going for you? What are your challenges and how are you coping?

    • This is definitely a very different semester! So far, I think it is going as well as can be expected, given the circumstances. I am teaching remotely, and although there are certainly some disadvantages to that format, there are also some advantages. Having a recording of every class, for example, is a real benefit for the students. So I’m trying to focus on the positive aspects. I think the biggest challenge in remote teaching is making a personal connection with each student. It’s much easier, for example, to gauge student attention, interest, and comprehension in person, and I’m still experimenting with equivalent ways to do so using Zoom.

  • What can you tell us about your recent publication called “The Nashville-Number System: A Framework for Teaching Harmony in Popular Music?”

    • The standard way in university music departments to represent the functional harmony of a musical composition is through Roman numerals and figured bass. Perhaps not surprisingly, Roman numerals and figured bass—which were developed hundreds of years ago in the context of classical music—do a rather poor job of faithfully representing harmony in popular music. In contrast, Nashville numbers are much better at handling the types of harmonic sonorities found in the songs we hear on the radio. That paper was primarily about explaining the advantages of the Nashville number system to a music theory audience, in part with the hope of convincing music theorists that their students would benefit from knowing about Nashville numbers.

  • You also published “The Harmonic-Bass Divorce in Rock.” What is that about?

    • For a few decades now, scholars of popular music have talked about the “melodic-harmonic divorce,” which refers to a situation where the melody seems to act independently of the harmony. This occurs, for example, when the melody is just going up and down the pentatonic scale in a way that appears to ignore the chord changes. My paper extended that idea, showing cases where the bass line of a song appears to act independently from the harmonic content above. The bass pedal is a well-known example of this, but there a number of other situations where the bass and the rest of the texture seem to be implying different chord functions.

  • You straddle the worlds between popular music, like we hear on Spotify and the radio, and classical music that is taught in traditional music schools. What is that like? How have you found ways to communicate to Recording Industry students?

    • I have not found it too challenging to communicate ideas from classical music to Recording Industry students, as long as those ideas are relevant and applicable to popular music. The bigger challenge for me has been in the other direction, communicating to faculty in traditional music programs the importance and value of including popular music in their teaching. Even though classical music now accounts for less than one percent of the music listened to in this country, it still occupies the vast majority of the music studied in university music departments. Something is out of balance there, although it’s not easy to convince music departments to fundamentally change what they do.

  • Your research areas include developing new methods for popular music to use in the classroom to replace classical music’s traditional pedagogical methods. What can you tell us about what you’ve learned?

    • I’ve learned that you can’t really take anything for granted when teaching popular music. Traditional pedagogical methods for music rely on a great many assumptions that, in my experience, often end up being inappropriate for describing or explaining popular music. I have to regularly remind myself that just because I have been teaching a particular topic or using a particular approach, there might be an alternative topic or different approach that would be better suited for teaching popular music. It has kind of amazed me how many traditional concepts for music warrant being rethought, ranging from rhythm to harmony to melody to form.

  • You have also written about popular music’s ambiguities when it comes to key, chord, and form when trying to encode it. Can you tell us about what you’ve found?

    • I would say there are two types of ambiguities. The first type is that it is difficult to hear what a musician is playing on a recording, especially in a dense mix. For classical music, we have scores; but we don’t yet have the multi-tracks publicly available for recorded commercial music. So it requires a significant amount of educated guesswork to “fill in the blanks” of what was actually played. The second type of ambiguity comes from the traditional notation system itself. I may know, for example, exactly which notes a musician is playing, but those notes may not fit neatly into any standard category of chord. That leaves some ambiguity for the music researcher as to how to categorize those notes. As a result, the researcher will imprint some of their own bias on how the song is encoded, for better or worse, based on their preferences for one categorization versus another.

  • You are a very prolific writer and researcher with an impressive list of publications. How do you find time? What works for you in terms of carving out blocks of uninterrupted hours?

    • It is difficult to find time to write during the semester. I mostly focus on my teaching, finding interesting examples for my students and re-organizing topics to better match what I think the students should learn about. Luckily, I teach in the same area as I research. So all the work I do preparing and thinking about my music classes usually engenders a few paper ideas. It is then during the winter and summer breaks when I actually sit down to write. Once a paper has been drafted, it’s not too time consuming to make edits, respond to reader comments, or do proofreading during the semester. These sort of post-submission tasks often have deadlines, which helps focus how I should spend whatever free time I have during the semester to devote to research-related activities.

  • Do you have any “hacks” in the areas of writing, researching, or submitting articles for publication that might help the rest of us?

    • I wish I did! Perhaps one thing I have learned is that it is helpful to have various projects of various sizes in various stages in the publication process. That way, if a particular article or book chapter gets rejected or stuck in the revision or editing phase, other projects are still moving forward. It might take a while to get that pipeline started, though. But like anything else, the more you do it, the easier it gets. I also don’t have any social media accounts, so that helps avoid distractions.

  • When did you develop an interest in music? When did you decide to pursue it for a living?

    • Even though I had been playing piano since I was six and learned cello in middle school, it wasn’t until I was fifteen and started teaching myself guitar that I got excited about learning about music. I decided to major in music in college, although halfway through I seriously considered dropping out given how unrelated the content of the coursework was to the popular music that I wanted to understand. My parents convinced me to finish my degree, but I was somewhat disillusioned with the academic side of music. So after graduating, I switched over to the technical side and started working in recording studios and studying electronics.

  • When did you decide to become a professor? Was there a professor who influenced you?

    • Around the time I turned thirty, I felt I was at a crossroads. I had developed enough of a career as an audio technician that I figured I should either go back to school to get a master’s degree in electrical engineering or reboot my career to focus more on the musical side. Ultimately, I reasoned that music was driving all of my interests, so I should re-center myself around music. That’s when I decided to get a Ph.D. in music theory in order to teach music at the college level. Like with my undergraduate degree, though, I seriously considered dropping out of grad school about halfway through given how little the coursework related to the music that I wanted to study. But I stayed with it, and luckily I was able to work with an excellent thesis advisor, Davy Temperley. He and I ended up collaborating on a few projects, and I owe a great deal to him for training me in how to write and research.

  • What do you do when you’re not working?

    • If I’m not teaching or researching, I’m spending time with my family. My two daughters are seven and five years old now, and they’re growing up fast. Their hobbies have become my hobbies, so I’ve been playing a lot of Monopoly Junior lately. As this pandemic has reminded all of us, life is fragile and unpredictable, and none of us can know how much time we have left. So I try to appreciate every day I have that I am healthy and can play with my kids and can laugh with my wife.