Music major Austin Bourdon, ’10, has immersed himself in the study of great classical composers of the 18th century to understand how they went about their work and what distinguished them from their peers. He’s also hoping that some of their genius might inspire his own compositions. Bourdon will present his senior honors project at the University of Richmond School of Arts & Sciences Student Research Symposium.

Bourdon began his project this past summer through a summer research grant. He spent months studying the sketchbooks of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart to understand how they composed. As a student of music, Bourdon had studied music theory and taken composition courses, but, as his advisor Dr. Gene Anderson explains, “He was interested in a difficult and thorny question – what makes a great composer great?”

Bourdon said an additional goal of this project was to use his findings as inspiration for his own compositions.

“If I could understand how these composers were doing what they were doing, I would better be able to compose in their style,” he said. “In a way I’m teaching myself composition through these composers – indirectly they’re teaching me.”

Bourdon used his research on the compositional styles of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart as a springboard for his senior honors project, which compares the styles of Mozart and Johann Christian Bach, son of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bourdon is curious to know why Mozart is still hailed as a genius, while J.C. Bach is less heralded. J.C. Bach is an appropriate point of comparison because he is the only person other than Mozart’s own father that Mozart credited for having taught him something about music.

Because little research has been done on this topic, Bourdon has had to rely on primary materials and, as his advisor put it, “hunt farther afield.”

“He shows a lot of initiative. I just have to point him in the right direction and off he goes,” Anderson said. “In my opinion he’s doing graduate level work in musicology, and I’m very proud of him and very intrigued by what he’s going to find out.”

Research was hardly a new experience for Bourdon when he began this musical undertaking. He spent the previous two summers pursuing physics research with physics professor Ted Bunn. A physics minor, Bourdon researched the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), a field of microwave radiation in the sky that came into existence shortly after the Big Bang. For years physicists have put forth explanations for anomalies in data collected on the CMB. Bourdon disproved these explanations.

Bourdon said his research projects have given him a sense of independence and new knowledge.

“Being able to independently study what I want, on my own, has opened a whole new understanding for me,” he said. “I have found it really helpful in determining my interests and skills.”