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Professor Robynn Stilwell Finds Meaning in Music

Professor Stilwell teaches classes on all kinds of music. (Photo: Roland Dimaya)


By Akoto Ofori-Atta
“I’m trained as a musicologist,” said Robynn Stilwell, associate professor of music in the Department of Performing Arts at Georgetown University. “So whatever I analyze, it’s always going to come from the musical perspective.”
It is the musical point of view that Stilwell feels is lacking from academia’s research in the arts, and in her latest research project she applies her unique musical viewpoints to genres she feels can benefit from it the most: film and television. Slated to be finished by the end of the year, Stilwell’s book will cover film and television and its use of the non-diegetic musical voice.
“Non-diegetic in film means emanating from outside the world of the film — something that the characters cannot hear and which does not interact with their reality, like a voice-over narrator or the musical underscore, Stilwell explains.
“Historically, directors and producers have always avoided using a non-diegetic musical voice,” she continued. “It has been an ongoing discussion in film music, but it has become more popular in its use over recent years, and I look to further understanding its use through my research.”   
Throughout her career, Stilwell has made tremendous efforts to reveal and understand music and how it affects every arena of life. Her academic interests in music are many, including film, theater and national, racial, and sexual identity. Music can be examined from any vantage point, because, as she puts it, music is far more than an adornment: it is part of the human condition.
“There is not one culture in the world that does not have music,” said Stilwell. “Music is a form of identity. It expresses who you are and in some cases, what you wish to become.”
Named after the song it examined, her first published project was an article entitled “In The Air Tonight.” In her article, she examined the use of singer/songwriter Phil Collins’s song and its constantly changing cultural affiliations.
“I wrote the article because the song was very distinct,” said Stilwell of the widely popular ‘80s hit. “People always wanted to harness its power throughout the years, but it never lost an ounce of it.”
Stilwell’s body of work is impressive, and has garnered much recognition from academics—she has been invited to present her research at several academic conferences. Initially, she intended performance to be the focus of her musical career, but while pursuing a B.M. in music at North Texas State University, which has one of the largest music departments in the country, she soon discovered that performing was not the path she wanted to take. At the end of her freshman year, she changed her major to music history and literature, and has been devoted to making academic contributions to music ever since.
Her passion for the study of music took her to both coasts and beyond, receiving her master’s in music at the University of Berkeley and her PhD in music history and musicology from the University of Michigan. After graduation, she taught music at the University of Southampton in England for seven years. It was there that she met José Bowen, who eventually helped start the music program at Georgetown. She left England in 2001 to join him, and has been at Georgetown ever since.
“We would often talk about what we would like to see in a music department,” said Stilwell. “So building a program and curriculum for teaching music was a really exciting idea, and something that I could not pass up.”
Stilwell teaches several courses, including “Introduction to Music and Film,” and “Music and Dance in America.” She also teaches “Music in a Multicultural World,” a course that is at the heart of one her many areas of musical interests: music and politics. In the class, Stilwell chose to teach students about the interaction of first world and third world music, and the power struggles it reflects.
“It’s really what most people would call a world music course.” Stilwell continued, “So I try to incorporate the impact this music has on its country of origin, and the culture from which it comes. But also what it means to us.”
To reinforce the idea that music is an expression of political power, this class studies events like state-sponsored Bulgarian radio choirs in the post-WWII era, up through the 1980s and 1990s. These choirs could be frequently heard on the radio as an attempt to homogenize the Bulgarian culture into a specific national identity.

“The purpose behind the curriculum of the classes I teach is that I want my students to come away with the understanding that music is not just this passive thing,” said Stilwell. “It’s not as simple as an abstract thing that you just go to the concert hall to enjoy, but it is power and people use that power to effect change.”
Stilwell is looking forward to the continued success of Georgetown’s music program.  As the program grew in popularity, it separated from the visual arts program this year into its own performing arts department along with theatre, dance, and public speaking. “It’s really an exciting time to be here,” Stilwell stated eagerly.
In addition to her book on non-diegetic voice, Stilwell is also working on an article for the Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music
“I’m supposed to write an article on the philosophy of music and dance,” Stilwell said, as she joked about the task of summarizing the subject in 4,000 words. “I’m pretty sure I could write a few books about that.”
Stilwell not only teaches music, but considers it a hobby. Contrary to what many may think, her love for musicology does not limit her musical tastes to classical musicians like Mozart and Bach.
“I listen to Britney Spears and Kanye West.” She explained, “You can find meaning in all types of music.”
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Insight: Professor Robynn Stilwell
Q. What's your favorite genre of music? A. I like it all.
Student Profile: HollyAnne Giffin
"By far the biggest thing that I have learned from Professor Stilwell’s classes," Giffin explains, "is to actually listen to music. Not just recognize the artist or sing the refrain, but also recognize the origins and influences, the style of instrumentation, the environment the music is played in."
Student Profile: Jessica Gitner
When Jessica Gitner enrolled in Professor Stilwell’s special topics seminar entitled “Music, Gender, and Sexuality” during the second semester of her sophomore year, she did not know what to expect.
Student Profile: Lauren Meigs
Lauren Meigs, a sophomore English major from Huntsville, Alabama has a new reverence and understanding of music that has broadened her horizons and revealed to her new possibilities. And, according to her, she has Professor Stilwell and her classes to thank.
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