Campus Life faculty spotlight

Inside the Mind of a Musicologist

Meet Dr. Teresa Neff, a Senior Lecturer in Music

10339 teresa neff
Teresa Neff is a Senior Lecturer in Music.
Photo Courtesy of Teresa Neff
10339 teresa neff
Teresa Neff is a Senior Lecturer in Music.
Photo Courtesy of Teresa Neff

Name and Title: Teresa Neff, Senior Lecturer in Music 

Department: Music and Theater Arts 



This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What made you interested in attending graduate school to pursue a PhD in musicology? Did you consider being a musician or pianist instead? 

I was a piano major but also a music education major. I loved music performance, but I took a history class as an undergraduate called the 20th Century Survey. My professor, the late Fred Moleck, was amazing. He got us excited about music we hadn’t heard before.

I fell in love with not just performing the piece but also putting it in context, considering aspects like the composers and period. That’s what musicology is — putting the music  in perspective and exploring music that way. 

As a senior lecturer in music, what research do you present at music conferences? What exactly happens at these conferences? 

Most recently, I presented a paper in Madrid, Spain. The title of the conference was called “Classics Off-center,” and was about performing the works of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven — kind of standard repertoire — outside of Vienna, Paris, or locations we don’t associate with these composers.

I talked about Haydn’s oratorio creation, all the different Boston performances, and how they changed over the years. We’re very careful these days, in some instances, to be faithful to what the composer wanted. And I worked with the Handel and Haydn Society [in Boston] which was very much focused on that. In the 19th century, you might have a chorus of 700 or 800 singing a piece — Haydn didn’t have a chorus of 700 or 800. I’m interested in how you adapt a piece for musical performances, what people thought at the time, and that sort of thing. That’s what this conference was about.

Other people talked about Beethoven in Cuba — that was a cool paper. There was another pair of scholars who had spent 20 or 25 years going through all the archives in Spain researching when this piece premiered and creating this massive database, which was just astounding. 

So that’s what happens. You propose a topic: if it gets accepted, you go to the conference and you meet a lot of people doing a lot of really interesting things that you wouldn’t get to know about otherwise.

What does your work as a musicologist at the Handel and Haydn Society consist of? 

Here’s the official title that’s incredibly long: I am the Christopher Hogwood Historically Informed Performance Fellow, an endowed position. Christopher Hogwood was a conductor who specialized in what we think of as a historically informed performance. He was a conductor of [the Handel and Haydn Society], and that’s why the position is named after him.

What I primarily do is writing program notes for all of the concerts and giving pre-concert talks for each of the concerts. I also work with the Handel and Haydn Society’s education program, so I go visit the many choirs for grade school and high school kids. For example, one of their choirs is singing with the Handel and Haydn Society for Beethoven’s 9th Symphony Concert. I’ll go into their rehearsal, and we talk about Beethoven’s 9th so they get a sense of how they fit into the piece, what their role is, and what the piece is all about.

I did the same thing with a younger group of singers, which was incredibly fun. And then they also have associations with different high schools and grade schools in the Boston area, so I will go to their locations and work with their groups as well. I’m involved in conversations about the repertoire, and questions relating to the history of the piece come up. 

How does it feel to teach music in a predominantly STEM university?

I love it.

This is the only STEM university I’ve taught at, so the data set is very small, but the idea is that there is a level of inquiry here about how something works. And that is fundamental to how I approach music by asking, “How does this thing work?” I think it’s logical in a way, and I think these things just complement each other beautifully.

It just absolutely makes sense, and the way we think about it makes sense. I think it’s really perfect.

What major changes have the MIT music department and program undergone ever since you started teaching at MIT in 2000? 

The music department has changed and expanded. We offer many more classes across a lot of different disciplines than before. That is the beauty of the department. When someone says, “I have an interest in this and want to put a class together,” our section is incredibly receptive. That’s how the Beatles class (21M.285) got started in the fall of 2017. I developed the American popular music class with George Ruckert. We wanted to expand our pop music offerings and someone said, “Do the Beatles.” I said, “Yes please!” 

I haven’t taught this class in a while, but I once did a class about tuning and temperament. That was incredibly fun. The Bach class last semester was the same idea and so was the Beethoven class during COVID. 

The jazz program has expanded. We now have a professor in jazz, Miguel Zenon, who just won a Grammy. Composition has expanded. History has expanded. So has world music. The classes keep growing. 

We have a lot of minors, concentrators, and majors too. We do have folks who only major in music. Majoring in music is rare. We are talking about a handful, but for MIT that still says something. We had a student graduate who is now in a computational musicology program at Yale. Before, we had someone in music theory at Yale.  

How do you make your classes engaging and meaningful for students? What significant changes have you made to your classes and teaching style, if any?

I have definitely changed how I teach over the years. Different groups and different classes react differently. If something doesn’t work, I’m going to do something to change that. 

Other times it is my colleagues. We talk to each other all the time about what works and what doesn’t work. I ask them, “I want to try this — what do you think?” We help each other think about those pedagogical ideas. 

Overall, coming to MIT has made me become less of a lecturer and more of a listener. That’s one of the best things I can do so I can create opportunities for students to work together rather than sitting and listening to me drone on and on. 

What was your first concert experience like? What are some favorite concerts you have been to and what made them stand out? 

I grew up in Pennsylvania, and Pinchas Zuckerman, a very famous string player at the time, came to Altoona [a town in Pennsylvania]. Altoona is a very small place — there’s no major anything there — so this was a huge deal. To be able to sit in the third row and hear someone of his caliber playing, which was quite remarkable. That was the first one I remember.

I remember going to the Pittsburgh Symphony [during college], and there was Leonard Bernstein. He did Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 and Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony. It was the first time I heard the piece live, and it was astounding because I heard in that live concert individual instrumental lines that I’d never heard on the recording. Then there were jazz concerts. When I was in college, I was totally into jazz. And so I made it kind of my goal to hear every jazz performer I could, so I heard Miles Davis. I heard David Gillespie here in Cambridge, and I was as far away from him as I am from you.

Who is your favorite composer and/or singer? What is your favorite piece? 

That is so hard to answer. For today, I would say Beethoven because I have been working on the Ninth Symphony. H and H (Handel and Haydn Society) is going to do this piece in a couple of weeks. Tomorrow, it will be something different. That’s the beauty of it. 

What are you currently listening to at the moment?

Leon Bridges. Check him out, he’s got good stuff.

What’s your favorite resource for music? Any recommendations? 

If you want to go into the “classical” way, I like Medici.TV via MIT libraries. You can put that on, and it has some concert running all the time. I also like Tiny Desk Concert on NPR because that gives me a whole different array. I can pick and choose. I also go with what people tell me to listen to. 

Are you still able to find the time to practice and perform outside of work? If so, what music groups are you involved in? 

I don’t perform too much anymore. I used to be a church organist. I also used to conduct, but I’ve gotten away from that. I play every day, but I play for myself.

Right now, I’m in the Bach Chorales. I read through a couple of Bach Chorales. And then that will change.

There has been debate about whether classical music is a dying art. What is your view on this topic? How would you encourage more MIT students to take advantage of the BSO college card and other opportunities in Boston? 

I don’t think classical music per se is dying. I just think we keep finding other means of expression. It is going to keep changing. I think it is part of the natural progression of cultures. We are always bringing in something new, and when you do it, something else is going to be left behind. That’s what’s happening now. 

If you are asking in terms of CD sales or streaming, I don’t know. People still go to concerts. Sometimes, you don’t need to go to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough with 60,000 people. Even 50 people is great. It doesn’t need to be a mega event to be special. 

I mean, how many music groups are at MIT? There’s the Ribotones. People who like reading chamber sheet music from the Lewis Music Library. I walked through Building 4 at 11 p.m. on a Friday night, and I just heard so much music coming out of all the classrooms. I don’t care whether it is classical music or not. People are making music and that’s incredibly cool.  

Absolutely take advantage of these opportunities because you will never get this opportunity again like the BSO college card. No one is going to offer these tickets when you leave. Just do it all.