"What I enjoyed more than anything," she recalls, "was helping soloists understand the music they were performing and helping the music and the period come to life for them."
The noted musicologist has been bringing music to life ever since.
A 1995 winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, Professor McClary has earned a reputation for originality in the field by interpreting symphonies or popular songs as cultural artifacts, much as art historians or English professors do with painting, sculpture, novels and poetry.
McClary looks at the musical details — note selection, meter, tone color and organizational structure — of specific pieces to find what they reveal about the milieu that produced them.
"I take the music very seriously," she says, "and it gives me a sense of what's going on in the period."
The author and editor of 25 books and numerous articles does not focus on a single musical genre or period. Instead, her interests run from medieval hymns to contemporary hip-hop.
Within musicology, McClary specializes in an area once dismissed as ineffable: how music embodies shifting perceptions about gender and sexuality and expresses in subtle ways how individuals define themselves and experience emotion. She is best known for her 1991 book, "Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality."
Since 1993, McClary has delivered several prominent public lectures, including UCLA's prestigious Faculty Research Lecture, the Bloch Lectures at UC Berkeley, the Grout Lecture at Cornell University and the Hooker Lectures at McMaster University. Two years ago, she was a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar at universities throughout the United States. She also is a frequent pundit in the cultural press.
"Most people have music in the center of their lives," McClary says. "I believe my work sheds light on how music affects us and why it is so influential."