Theory Thursday

Continuing with the theme launched in Tuba-Euphonium Tuesday this week, I decided to make a list of ten books every theorist should read at some point during the MA/MM program (or just before entering). Caveats here: 1. As always, I can’t claim to have read all of them, though at the very least I have read excerpts. 2. This list assumes an undergraduate degree in theory/composition or a solid BA. 3. Some are (or can be considered) textbooks.

And away we go, in no particular order…

1. Heinrich Schenker, Five Graphic Music Analyses
2. David Lewin, Generalized Musical Intervals and Transformations
3. Felix Salzer, Structural Hearing
4. Joseph Straus, Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory
5. Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff, A Generative Theory of Tonal Music
6. Allen Forte, The Structure of Atonal Music
7. Grosvenor Cooper and Leonard Meyer, The Rhythmic Structure of Music
8. William Rothstein, Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music
9. William Caplin, Classical Form
10. David Huron, Sweet Anticipation

This list is going to be hopelessly and helplessly incomplete. I have tried to cover tonal music, atonal music, rhythm, form, and even cognition. The tonal materials skew Schenkerian; that’s not intentional, but even if you don’t like Schenker you have to deal with him.

Thoughts? Complaints? Addenda?



  1. I like it. I would maybe add an asterisked Cambridge History of Western Music Theory. It’s a difficult, long read for an MM student, I would think, but it encapsulates in one place just about everything they need to know.

    Seems to me there should be some popular music texts on the list, but none come to mind immediately. Maybe Brackett’s “Analyzing popular music?”

  2. Excellent list… and I feel happy to say that I’ve read all but one, and I’m not even a theorist…
    I’m not sure how I feel about Salzer…I might go with Schenker’s Die Freie Satz instead and get the information from the source. Straus’ book is a reasonably good introduction, but heavy on atonal ideas, when the truth is that a lot more happened in the twentieth-century. I haven’t read it yet, but I flipped through an exam copy of Kotska’s post-tonal book and I think I might prefer that. David Huron’s book is amazing. Lewin’s is good, if you can get past the mathematics. Some criticize his approach as “number magic”… what do you think? Mike recommends CHWMT, which is a good book. I took a year long seminar in the history of music theory, so I didn’t feel the need to read the whole thing. For review, I might suggest Jeppesen’s Counterpoint and Aldwell-Schachter-Cadwallader’s Harmony and Voice-Leading.

  3. I thought about CHWMT, but figured they’d actually have to read that during the course of their degree. As for the popular music analysis, I thought about that as well, but it’s just not a part of enough MM/MA curricula yet. (It should be.)

    It was a tough call for me – the Straus, Kostka and Roig-Francoil post-tonal books are all quite good (though Mike and I have had discussions about Roig-Francoli’s…shall we say, deterministic approach). I learned from Straus, taught from Roig-Francoli and used Kostka as ancillary material.

    I like this topic; I think I’ll return to something like it next week.


  4. The Classical Style is a good book, yes, but doesn’t really have the summative punch that the others on your list have… it’s in the realm of analysis rather than what I refer to as “honest-to-goodness theory.” Caplin’s book is much better, I think. It is the only book that I’m aware of that really explains what happens in a development section beyond “development happens in a development section.”

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