Expanding Music Theory

May 24, 2022





With goals to broaden access to music theory, collaborate with people with varied interests, and diversify the types of music theorists study, Richard Desinord will become the newest member of the Michigan State University Music Theory faculty this fall. His is a story of knowing what he wanted to do, feeling like it did not fit into his world, but ultimately finding a way to succeed.

Desinord has accepted the position of Assistant Professor of Music Theory in the College of music, effective August 16. After an extensive search process with a highly qualified pool of applicants, he is realizing a vision he has had since seventh grade.

“I knew I wanted to do music theory since the seventh grade after my trumpet teacher taught me how to learn my scales by finding patterns,” Desinord explained. “Many teachers simply give their students all of their scales on paper and go through one or more a week, but my teacher had me figuring out key signatures and the circle of fifths without explicitly saying what we were doing. I just thought it was like a cool game.”

Now, Desinord lectures in music theory at Howard University. His research interests include harmony and genre in contemporary black church music and neo-soul, the music of Robert Glasper, theory pedagogy, and the visualization of music theory. He earned a BM in music education from Howard University (magna cum laude), an MA in music theory from Penn State University, and he is completing his doctorate at the Eastman School of Music this summer. 

“While completing my bachelors at Howard, my professors worked with me to learn how to write about theory and gave me my first Music Theory Spectrum journal. It took me three years post-undergrad to build my confidence, but I applied for a masters on a whim, and here I am,” he said.

A lack of representation in most departments of music theory and an often strict focus on classical music made him feel out of place when considering advanced degree studies. It was a primary reason he hesitated to enroll in a graduate program.

“Part of the reason I took so long to apply for a graduate program is that I felt like an anomaly. I was a Black kid that grew up in a very Black environment, and while I was good at theory, I didn’t see how I fit within that world,” Desinord said. “Music theory became more meaningful to me when I started using it both within and outside of classical music.”

The Music Theory Search Committee that chose Desinord included Music Theory Area Chair Michael Callahan and Music faculty Arris Golden, Sarah Ann Long, Gordon Sly, and Cara Stroud. It also included student representatives Phoenix Miranda and Kaylee Bernard, and their eagerness to work with Desinord is apparent.

“I am excited to see how Professor Desinord reimagines how theory is taught in and outside of the classroom. Professor Desinord has a dynamic history in education that covers a multitude of musical genres and diverse student interactions,” said Miranda, an undergraduate student. “He meets students where they are, and I believe many students will feel seen and heard with him as our new Assistant Professor of Music Theory.”

Music Theory graduate student Kaylee Bernard agrees. She is looking forward to Desinord’s fresh approach. 

“I’m very excited for him to join us,” Bernard said, “and I think his work will help further our endeavors to expand and enrich the field of music theory research and pedagogy.”
While growing up in Washington, DC, Desinord wanted to be like his older brother and started taking saxophone lessons. He made the move to trumpet, played in the church, and in college made the switch to horn. Today, the multi-instrumentalist focuses on piano because of its ease in presenting theory concepts. With his degree in music education, he can also teach beginners on clarinet, saxophone, flute, trombone, euphonium, and tuba.

Desinord has presented research on composers of jazz, R&B and Neo-soul, and his work appears in the Cambridge Stravinsky Encyclopedia. He is a member of Black Classical Music Educators and the International Society of Black Musicians, and he is a fervent supporter of the Classically Black Podcast. He said he is excited about joining the Music Theory faculty at MSU.

“I think the theory world is finally reckoning with the fact that things need to change, and part of the reason I’m so excited about at MSU is that the faculty has already been having conversations around issues of accessibility and inclusion,” Desinord said. “They're committed to changes that need to take place in order to diversify both the types of music we discuss and the people that discuss them.”

The MSU music theory faculty are looking forward to Desinord coming to MSU as well. 

“I am delighted to welcome Richard Desinord to our music theory community here at MSU,” said Callahan. “His expertise, experience, and ideas will add significantly to what we do and how we do it. Richard’s research on neo-soul and gospel musics is expanding the discipline in important ways, and the balance of musicianship, care, approachability, and rigor that he achieves in the classroom will be an asset to every student in our College of Music. I can’t wait to start working with him.”