This fall, Dr. Neil Newton joined the Department of Music as a lecturer in music theory. Tasked with leading both graduate seminars in analysis and undergraduate core theory classes, Newton’s innovative teaching style is already making an impact. The New Zealand native typically enters his undergraduate lectures armed with an acoustic guitar and his deep knowledge of both popular and classical music. He then proceeds to introduce each new harmonic concept with a familiar pop song. It’s an approach that Newton sees as very beneficial to the students.
“You’re using material that the students are familiar with,” he says, “and that’s important because they don’t feel that they’re on a back foot because they’re hearing something for the first time. The other aspect is that the voice leading in popular music—the actual specific voice moving to another voice is not as important in the harmony. You can look at the harmonies in a more abstract fashion and just concentrate on the actual sound of one chord moving to another. After that you can move towards people that do care more about voice leading like Bach.”
The relationship between popular and concert music, often assumed to be in conflict in the past, is tightly integrated in Newton’s own musical experience. He completed his masters and PhD in the composition and theory at the University of Auckland while playing in the popular New Zealand band George and Queen.
As a theorist Newton was drawn to early post-tonal music through the compositions of fellow New Zealander Anthony Watson, whose music Newtown describes as “Bartokian.”
“I was looking at Watson’s music and noticed that he was using what could really be described as leading tones heading into a phrase. I thought it was quite interesting that these traces of tonality were popping up in his works and I got quite interested in that.”
The fascination with the intersection between tonal and post-tonal music spurred Newton to look at early works by Schoenberg and Berg and these studies became the basis of his doctoral dissertation. Meanwhile, his work in pop music opened up another of his major theoretical interests, namely popular music voice leading. In particular, Newton has become aware of how the primacy of the guitar in popular music shapes this voice leading.
“The guitar in particular is not a good voice leading instrument. You tend not to hear much separation between voices, especially when it’s strummed, so what you get in popular music is a type of hidden voice leading. The octave that the voice is in isn’t important. You’ll have very clear lines of pitches moving along; it’s just that they jump amongst the voices.”
While focusing on his career in academia, Newton still performs as a guitarist but enjoys playing without the pressure of trying to achieve particular goals as a part of band.
“With George and Queen we were really pushing, trying to make something happen. Now I’m concentrating on academia more and it’s become important to focus on that. Pop music is something I carry on doing because I enjoy it.”
When not pursuing music, Newton is an avid cricket player and participated in teams while at previous teaching appointments in the UK. He was pleasantly surprised by the vibrant cricket scene he found in Pittsburgh.
“Cricket’s great in Pittsburgh! It has a really big following,” he says with obvious enthusiasm. “There are 17 teams in Pittsburgh, more than I think there were in either in Glasgow or Manchester. So it’s surprisingly strong and the league is healthy.”
Drawing on his varied musical experiences Neil Newton is bringing a fresh perspective to the study of music theory in the Department of Music and helping our students get the most from their own musical pursuits.