Karen Desmond is Professor of Music (tenured) at Brandeis University. She works on the manuscripts and notation of French and English polyphony in the later Middle Ages. Her books and other publications center on the aesthetic and theoretical systems that underpinned medieval music composition, and investigate change and creativity in the arts.

Desmond welcomes applications from prospective PhD students interested in working on any aspect of medieval music, music notation, or digital musicology.

Desmond has written quite a bit on the expansion of music notation systems during a period known as the “ars nova.” The music notation developed by ars nova theorists in the first half of the fourteenth century ushered in possibly the most significant change in the way in which musicians and composers in western Europe thought of musical composition, that is, as an act facilitated by the visual forms of music notation. Her work on the ars nova fills in serious gaps in the field’s understanding of the main ars nova protagonists, and identifies and explains what was at stake.

Desmond’s monograph, Music and the Moderni, 1300-1350: The Ars nova in Theory and Practice, won the 2019 Lewis Lockwood Award from the American Musicological Society, and was a finalist for the 2019 Wallace Berry Award from the Society for Music Theory. This book’s research and writing was supported by an NEH Research Fellowship (2014), an SSHRC Banting Fellowship (2014-16). Other book projects include her translation of Lambert’s Ars musica, edited by Christian Meyer (Ashgate, 2015) and The Montpellier Codex: The Final Fascicle, a collection of essays co-edited with Catherine Bradley (The Boydell Press, 2018). Desmond was co-editor for two recent special issue journals: one on the fourteenth-century composer, Philippe de Vitry (in Early Music), and one on the fourteenth-century astronomer and music theorist, Jean des Murs (in Erudition and the Republic of Letters).

Her current research centers on the liturgical polyphony of late medieval England, and the Worcester Fragments more specifically. I’m interested in the cycles of creativity, efflorescence, obsolescence, destruction, reuse, rediscovery and reconstruction that defined the performance and composition of English music during the Middle Ages, and its transmission and study since. Her most recent publication in the Journal of the American Musicological Society (“W. de Wicumbe’s Rolls and Singing the Alleluya ca. 1250”), through an investigation of mid-thirteenth-century roll fragments, examines the connections and crossover between the plainchant Alleluya prosula, insular liturgical polyphony, and the motet.

Desmond is also a digital musicologist: her music encoding project “Measuring Polyphony” was awarded an NEH Digital Humanities Advancement Grant for the development of an online mensural music editor (2019-20). The “MP Editor” allows users to transcribe compositions in a style of medieval notation—called “mensural notation”—directly from digital images of the original manuscripts (available at https://editor.measuringpolyphony.org). Capitalizing on the availability of high-quality images via IIIF, these computer encodings follow the community-based standards of the Music Encoding Initiative (MEI), and are linked directly to “zones” within the manuscripts, which allows for the simultaneous viewing of the image and its encoding in a web browser.

Desmond has a wide range of teaching and research experience at several different international institutions including the University of Cambridge (Visiting Fellow, Clare Hall and Visiting Scholar, Faculty of Music, Spring 2019), Harvard University (Visiting Assistant Professor, Spring 2018), McGill University (Banting Postdoctoral Fellow, 2014-2016), the University of Cologne (a postdoctoral researcher (2012-2013) on a DFG-funded project led by Prof. Dr. Frank Hentschel at the Institut für Musikwissenschaft), and University College Cork (Lecturer in Musicology, 2011-13). Her Ph.D. in musicology is from New York University (2009), and was supervised by Edward H. Roesner. At present, she’s chair of the American Musicological Society’s Board Committee on Technology (2019-2022), and sits on the Council of the American Musicological Society. Desmond also sits on the editorial boards of the Journal of Musicology and Plainsong and Medieval Music.


You can view my publications on my ORCID profile (https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6077-3182), or on my blog (https://www.arsmusicae.org/wordpress). 

Blog Posts


    Measuring Polyphony: An Online Music Editor for Late Medieval Polyphony

    Karen Desmond, Project Director


    The development of a prototype of an online music editor to help scholars and students analyze medieval music manuscripts. The project would also convene a workshop for medieval studies scholars, musicologists, and technical specialists to evaluate the prototype.

    The development of an online music editor will allow a variety of modern readers (students and experts, musicologists, music theorists, those interested in the history of music notation, counterpoint, medieval palaeography and/or manuscript studies) to access and contribute transcriptions of music directly linked to digital images of the medieval manuscripts, and to learn about the original notation. A two-day workshop will bring together the leading experts in music encoding and medieval musicology to evaluate the prototype editor and to devise plans for its further development and rollout. This tool will offer new possibilities for the analysis and interpretation of late medieval music. In a broader humanities context, the project investigates how modeling the meanings of notational signs can lead to new understandings of the interaction between the sign and the signified, and of the relationship between notational style and changes in musical style across time and place.

    Karen Desmond

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