Music Theory Online 30, no. 1 (Spring 2024), doi:10.30535/mto.30.1.9.

This essay gives a critical history of Anglophone topic theory as it evolved between the publication of Leonard Ratner’s Classic Music (1980) and The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory (Mirka 2014). Throughout this period, topic theory transformed from the identification of “characteristic figures” in eighteenth-century music into an analytical strategy for the intersubjective verification of correspondences between musical signifiers and extramusical meaning. Though Melanie Lowe (Lowe 2007) upheld the intertextuality of topics as a way past music’s “flawed” opposition with the extramusical, the binary has exerted sustained influence even as topic theory has advanced beyond the eighteenth-century canon to encompass more repertoires and interpretive methodologies. And because the musical-extramusical opposition finds its roots in the nineteenth-century idea of absolute music, it turns out that aspects of present-day topic theory are symptomatic of a much older way of thinking that evidently still gatekeeps what counts as knowledge about music. Historicizing topic theory provides interfaces for reconsidering the mutually constitutive relationships among music, meaning, analysis, interpretation, power, and politics.