By Kristin Letsch
Christopher Bartlette knew at a young age that music would be a significant part of his life, but he never envisioned it would bring him to where he is today.
"Have I always known that music would be the most important thing in my life? Yes. Did I know that I would always study music? Yes. Did I always know that I would be a music theorist? No. Did I know that I would make an academic career out of music? No."
Bartlette joined Harpur College in the fall of 2012 as an associate professor of music. He received his bachelor's degree in music as well as a Master of Music in Choral Conducting from the University of North Dakota. He then went on to complete his master's degree and doctorate in music theory from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester.
His time at the conservatory informed him of what music theory really is.
"The most compelling moment for me was getting there and being told I didn't know a thing about music theory," he says. "It was wonderful because in that environment, they were able to strip away what I thought it was. I thought music theory was math with music. It isn't. Music theory is music."
And this is what the professor hopes to get across to his students.
After graduating from Eastman in 2007, he became an assistant professor at Baylor University in Texas until last year. Bartlette was drawn to Binghamton because of the location and the fact that it is a state school offering a liberal arts education, he says—similar to his undergraduate experience.
"In my theory class, I teach students that are in 20 different majors or more. And the questions they bring are phenomenal," he says. "I love to be pushed . . . here I also have to engage a broader perspective. I bring in acoustics, I bring in psychology, and anything I can relate to."
Bartlette's area of expertise is music perception and cognition, which begins with how we interpret sound and results in how the brain responds, perhaps through emotions or some other form.
Both his specialty and music theory are arbitrary concepts, which makes it difficult to teach and for students to learn. But it is all about the right approach, he says.
"This plus this is this is not the way to approach music theory," he says. "Music theory is, listen to this piece of music. What happened? What sounded right to you? What sounded wrong to you?"
And it's also about the right attitude. Bartlette has encountered many people who say they dislike theory. To that, he responds with, "That's why I still teach it."
"I can't conceive of music without all of the structures that I know and it helps me so much," he says. "And I think that's probably why my teaching has been effective because I genuinely believe that I've become a more complete musician because of this study and I have to teach it."
Bartlette's first instrument was the piano, but he also plays the trombone, euphonium, and trumpet, along with other brass instruments. His favorite composers range from the traditional Beethoven to the eclectic Steve Reich (a minimalist composer) and bluegrass banjo player Béla Fleck.
With two semesters at Binghamton behind him, Bartlette has found students to be engaging and eager to learn.
"I've already run a rather large study having to do with pitch memory and I have no problems finding students willing to participate," he says, "and not only willing to participate, but to take it seriously."
In the future, the professor hopes to introduce cross-disciplinary work between the psychology and mathematics departments.
"I came here partly because of the strong psychology department," he says. "I would love to see some engagement, some cross-disciplinary work because I am in a cross-disciplinary field. I have one foot firmly planted in the traditional music theory world ... but I have this other foot that is in this large area of cognition that everybody is a part of."
Bartlette refers to himself as fortunate for many reasons: being given the opportunity to work with Harpur College and its inquisitive students, he says, and to teach what he's passionate about.
"Working here, we're called professor," he says. "Where I worked previously, we were called doctor by title. And I much prefer professor because I totally profess what I believe."
Last Updated: 6/3/15