Alexander Rehding

Fanny Peabody Professor of Music
Graduate Advisor in Theory

Music Building 305 N

Rehding is a music theorist with a focus on intellectual history and media theory. This has taken his work in a number of different directions from Ancient Greek music to the Eurovision Song Contest—and even into outer space. His research has contributed to Riemannian theory, the history of music theory, sound studies, and media archaeology, reaching into the digital humanities and ecomusicology. Working with the Sound Lab, Rehding’s recent work has particularly explored the interaction of music theory with culture and technology.

Rehding’s teaching and research has focused on 19th-century European concert music (mostly Beethoven, Liszt, and Wagner), including such issues as nationalism, cosmopolitanism, and cultural transfer; History of music theory (ancient Greece, Rameau, Riemann, Helmholtz). Global music theory; Historiography and Science & Technology Studies; Aesthetics and Media Theory, theories of Listening; Digital Humanities, Ecomusicology, Sound Studies, Sound Art, and Timbre studies.

Rehding was educated at the other Cambridge, where he received a string of academic degrees (BA, MA, MPhil, PhD). He held research fellowships at Emmanuel College Cambridge, the Penn Humanities Forum and the Princeton Society of Fellows before joining the Harvard Department in 2003, initially as Assistant Professor. Promoted to a full professorship in 2006 and named Fanny Peabody Professor of Music in 2009, Rehding served as department chair between 2011 and 2014. Rehding has been named an Affiliate of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literature and an Associate of the Center for European Studies and the Center for the Environment. From 2006 to 2011 Rehding served as co-editor of Acta musicologica (the journal of the International Musicological Society), and has been Editor-in-chief of the Oxford Handbook Online series in Music since 2011.

As a member of the Humanities Steering committee 2011–14 Rehding was part of a group that helped re-organize the humanities at Harvard and devised the Frameworks in the Humanities courses. With his colleague John Hamilton (German/Comparative Literature) Rehding devised a module called The Art of Listening (Humanities 11b) for the Frameworks series. In 2015–17 Rehding co-chaired of the committee that designed a new curriculum for the music concentration.

Rehding has worked extensively on Hugo Riemann’s theories and musical culture in nineteenth-century Germany, resulting in the books Hugo Riemann and the Birth of Modern Musical Thought (2003, pbk 2008) and The Oxford Handbook of Neo-Riemannian Music Theory (2011, pbk 2013 with Edward Gollin), which was awarded the Special Citation of Merit by the SMT. A second monograph, Music and Monumentality (2009, pbk 2017), explored the imaginary connection between “big” sounds and ambitions of greatness in the music of nineteenth-century Germany. This book was recognized with the Walter Channing Cabot Fellowship (2010). Rehding has also published numerous articles on nineteenth- and twentieth-century music, on such composers as WagnerLisztStravinsky and Schoenberg. A monograph on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony appeared in 2017.

Always interested in big cultural issues, Rehding has queried music theory’s engagement with the musical repertoires of other cultures. This interest has found expression in an exhibition (with online catalog) “Sounding China in Enlightenment Europe” (2010), which he curated with a group of graduate students, as well as a number of article-length studies on a range of topics including ancient Greek music theory (with John McKay), ancient Egyptian music, and enharmonicism in Rameau and Rousseau. His article “Music-Historical Egyptomania 1650-1950” was awarded the Forkosch Prize 2014 by the Journal for the History of Ideas.

The wider ramifications of questions of transmission and reconstruction led Rehding to an engagement with musical media, including notation but also recording technology. Articles in the field of media aesthetics and music include studies on Edison’s phonograph, the gramophone, the radio, as well as work on sirens. A series of recent articles explore the notion of “music-theoretical instruments,” taking their cue from recent developments in History of Science, Thing Theory, and Critical Organology. In addition, Rehding convened a colloquy on media theory and music that was published in JAMS in 2017. The monograph on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which examines the transformations of the workin the digital age, is also a contribution to media theory.

Rehding is interested in how music theory has engaged the question of sound. Thanks to a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, he was the convener of the 2013/14 John E. Sawyer Seminar in the Comparative Study of Culture, “Hearing Modernity.” In the same year, Rehding launched the Sound Lab in the music department, which is now in its second phase. With the help of the Sound Lab, Rehding pursues the integration of multi-media projects into scholarship in the context of ongoing efforts to fully open up the humanities to the digital domain.

The question of Nature has long held special appeal to music theory. With his colleague Suzannah Clark, Rehding co-edited a volume on Music Theory and Natural Order (2001, pbk 2003), which explores this nexus across history. Connecting the question of nature with contemporary concerns, Rehding has delved into Ecomusicology (and he may have inadvertently coined the term). Current ecological thinking has adopted post-human theories, such as Object Oriented Ontology (which is also a major influence on Critical Organology) and chronocriticism. Rehding has been especially interested in reflections on very long timespans and extreme slowness.

A current research project (with Daniel Chua) bears the exceptionally modest title An Intergalactic Music Theory of Everything (IMTE). In this project they use the “Golden Record” of the enormously ambitious interstellar Voyager mission (1977) as a starting point for a multi-media exploration of how we might use music to communicate across cultures, species, even planets. Their co-authored book, entitled Alien Listening: Music from Earth and Voyager’s Golden Record will be published by Zone Books in 2021. At the broadest level, Rehding’s current projects are interested in exploring what a post-human music theory might look like.

Other current projects include the Oxford Handbook of Timbre (co-edited with Emily Dolan, 2021) and Oxford Handbook of Critical Concepts in Music Theory (with Steve Rings, 2019). Rehding is also at work on a six-volume Cultural History of Western Music for Bloomsbury (with David Irving).

Rehding has been awarded numerous awards and fellowships, including Guggenheim, ACLS, Mellon, Humboldt, and Radcliffe. He was awarded the Dent Medal in 2014, for which he gave the lecture “Three Music Theory Lessons.”