In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Analysis

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals

Music Analysis
David Damschroder
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0002


Active engagement with music often triggers a curiosity to know how compositions work and what distinguishes various styles and genres from one another. In some cases the goal is to understand and appreciate a body of music more fully, whereas in other cases a specific outcome motivates the quest: for example, a desire to write a composition similar to some that one admires or to perform a specific composition more effectively. Mainly since the 18th century, a large and diverse body of writings has emerged to help aspirants succeed in such quests. Whereas music proceeds swiftly and relies on aural reception, usually an analysis assumes a slower, more ponderous pace of absorption and depends on visual communication: the written word and music examples that represent, often in an abbreviated rendering or with annotations, content from the composition under consideration. The enterprise of music analysis has persisted because many musicians have found it to be a productive means of clarifying and deepening their engagement with music. Given the complexity of the task at hand, it should not be surprising that diverse analytical strategies have emerged for many branches of the musical repertory. To some extent contrasting methodologies offer complementary information that can be integrated by the aspirant. Yet, within the realm of music analysis, many conflicting viewpoints vie for acceptance. The field is still actively evolving, even for music hundreds of years old. (The recent work of Caplin and of Hepokoski and Darcy on form in the classical era is an especially fascinating case in point [see Caplin 1998 and Hepokoski and Darcy 2006, cited under Tonal Music: Form].) Most readers will want to explore a range of analytical perspectives. Through familiarity and diligent study, a greater discernment will emerge, guiding the continuation of the undertaking. Indeed, many important contributions that will enhance our understanding have yet to be formulated. Thus the ongoing, lifelong process of music study may have unexpected rewards and surprises. Likewise, many of the ideas that shape contemporary music analysis have evolved over a long period. (For example, modern Roman-numeral harmonic analysis is rooted in a practice that began early in the 18th century.) The history of music analysis, an important field for specialists, will be addressed here principally via commentaries and synopses, mostly in English. This pertains particularly to the analysis of music from the 18th and 19th centuries. Similar developments for early music, contemporary music, and popular music are of more recent vintage. Because modern scholarship tends to incorporate the best of what is offered in older books, emphasis is here placed on contemporary analytical practices.

General Overviews

The range of perspectives, strategies, and modes of presentation that are encompassed by analytical writings can be daunting. Fortunately, numerous resources are available to help make sense of the myriad trends within the field. Dunsby and Whittall 1988 covers a limited number of topics in some depth, whereas Bent 1987 in English and Beck 1974 in German offer more wide-ranging overviews of the field’s potentialities. Christensen 2002 in English and Zaminer and Ertelt 1984–2006 in German place music analysis within the broader perspective of music theory, while Adorno 2002 offers guidance to performers and listeners and Golab 2008 offers an epistemological essay. Several more specialized studies explore individual facets of the discipline: Bent 1994 offers a superb sampling of 19th-century analytical practices, Damschroder 2008 looks at the practice of harmonic analysis in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Göllner 2004 presents a range of 18th-century views on the symphony.

  • Adorno, Theodor W. “On the Problem of Musical Analysis.” In Essays on Music. Edited by Richard Leppert. Translated by Max Paddison, commentary: 101–107, text: 162–178. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

    This essay, a translation of an unscripted talk that Adorno presented to conservatory students in Frankfurt in 1969 (just months before he died), focuses especially on how analysis impacts performance and listening. Adorno places analysis on an equal footing with other interpretive endeavors such as translation, criticism, and commentary. He advocates paying careful attention to the various processes that transpire during a work—how the composition comes into being through the amalgamation of a specific set of events and transformations. During his lifetime Adorno put these prescriptions into practice particularly in his writings on Beethoven, Berg, and Mahler.

  • Beck, Hermann. Methoden der Werkanalyse in Musikgeschichte und Gegenwart. Taschenbücher zur Musikwissenschaft 9. Wilhelmshaven, Germany: Heinrichshofen, 1974.

    Beck assesses methods of music analysis within the realms of music criticism, music theory, and musicology, all extending from Antiquity through the 1970s. The mix of authors addressed is fascinating in its eclecticism: Adler, Adorno, Forkel, Hoffmann, Schenker, Schumann, and many others.

  • Bent, Ian. Analysis. New Grove Handbooks in Music. London: Macmillan, 1987.

    Bent’s pithy masterpiece covers much ground in just over one hundred pages. (An extensive glossary of analytical terms by William Drabkin and a rich bibliography fill out the volume.) Bent is gifted at writing densely packed yet intelligible summaries of the contributions of numerous authors. The range of analytical methodologies addressed is very broad. Updated version available to subscribers at Grove Music Online.

  • Bent, Ian, ed. Music Analysis in the Nineteenth Century. 2 vols. Cambridge Readings in the Literature of Music. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511470257

    Divided into two parts (Volume 1, Fugue, Form and Style; Volume 2, Hermeneutic Approaches), this work offers more than thirty examples (most in Bent’s translations from French or German) of the ways in which analysis was pursued by 19th-century authors. Helpful editorial introductions and two bibliographical essays are included as well.

  • Christensen, Thomas, ed. The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521623711

    This extraordinary volume presents contributions on a wide range of topics by more than thirty scholars, many of them the leading specialist on the topic addressed. Though some entries are more pertinent to analysis than others, overall the volume offers a panorama of the Western tradition since Antiquity.

  • Damschroder, David. Thinking about Harmony: Historical Perspectives on Analysis. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511482069

    This work traces how what has historically been one of the most fruitful of all analytical enterprises—harmonic analysis—developed during the 18th and 19th centuries. The author presents and comments on excerpts from numerous historical treatises and demonstrates their application in analysis.

  • Dunsby, Jonathan, and Arnold Whittall. Music Analysis in Theory and Practice. London: Faber, 1988.

    Dunsby and Whittall offer an introductory overview of music analysis. The tonal portion is organized by analyst: Schenker, Tovey, Schoenberg, Hindemith, Reti, and Meyer. The atonal portion is organized by topic: pitch-class sets, form, twelve-note composition, etc.

  • Golab, Maciej. Musical Work Analysis: An Epistemological Debate. Translated by Wojciech Bonkowski. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2008.

    Golab’s thoughtful work ponders the place of analysis within music history, music theory, and music aesthetic, focusing on the terms and methods of analysis and its impact on music performance. Originally published in Polish (2003).

  • Göllner, Marie Louise. The Early Symphony: 18th-Century Views on Composition and Analysis. Studien zur Geschichte der Musiktheorie 5. Hildesheim, Germany: Olms, 2004.

    An impressive selection of excerpts from 18th-century music treatises is here conveniently arranged and presented in English translation.

  • Zaminer, Frieder, and Thomas Ertelt, eds. Geschichte der Musiktheorie. 12 vols. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1984–2006.

    This monumental set offers readers a feast of information concerning a broad range of ideas relating to music theory (some with an explicit analytical focus) from Antiquity through the 19th century.

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