Dissertation Index

Author: Smither, Sean R

Title: Conceptualizing Tunes: Avant-textes, Referents, and the Analysis of Musical Structure in Jazz

Institution: Rutgers University

Begun: May 2017

Completed: May 2020


The ontological status of jazz tunes is a fraught topic that has generated much philosophical and analytical debate. A given tune may be represented by many lead sheets, each one different from the last in its representation of the tune’s melody and chord changes. Performances of tunes are even more diverse: musicians realize harmonies differently, substitute and interpolate chords, interpret the head melody differently, solo extensively over the chord changes, and so on. When analyzing a jazz tune, it is therefore difficult to determine exactly what is being analyzed.

In this dissertation, I develop a cyclical, processual model of the jazz tune. My model begins with a network of existing versions of a tune. Borrowing terminology from sketch studies and the literary field of genetic criticism, I call this network an “avant-texte.” By analyzing the relations between various versions of a given tune, we gain a sense of the overlapping contexts that inform an improviser’s conception of the tune. Improvisers become familiar with versions from the avant-texte and form a referent for the piece, a prototype consisting of various kinds of musico-structural features and levels of defaults. When features are shared between referents, they often represent stock schemata that can be used to more quickly grasp the structures of many different tunes. Referents and their component schemata are subjective mappings of musical structure that capture some of the flexibility inherent in prototypes. Improvisers use these mappings in improvisation as part of an ongoing negotiation of musical structure. The resulting improvisation represents a new version of the tune, which in turn may become part of the tune’s avant-texte network. In order to engage with all aspects of this model, I advocate for a method of analysis that accounts for the varied subjective views that help construct a jazz tune’s identity.

Keywords: jazz, ontology, referent, work concept, jazz tune, jazz standard, improvisation, schema, interaction


Chapter 1: Jazz Tunes and Ontology
Chapter 2: Avant-textes
Chapter 3: Entextualization and Transcription
Chapter 4: Referent Features and Defaults
Chapter 5: Musical Schemata and Interaction
Chapter 6: Analyzing Tunes


Sean R. Smither

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