In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section American Music Theory, 1955–2017

  • Introduction
  • Schenkerian Theory and Analysis
  • Twelve-Tone Theory
  • Transformational Theory
  • Performance
  • Phenomenological Approaches
  • Approaches from Literary Theories
  • Popular Music
  • Non-Western Approaches
  • Multimedia Studies
  • Timbre
  • Cognition

Music American Music Theory, 1955–2017
David Forrest, Severine Neff, John Reef
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0073


Since ancient Greece, the discipline of music theory has offered explanations for the nature of musical phenomena and the fundamental principles governing their use. As early as the Middle Ages, musicians utilized such explanations to analyze specific musical compositions. However, analysis as a subdiscipline of theory burgeoned only centuries later in 19th-century Europe. At that time, conservatory musicians, most often composers, taught theory as compositional craft—counterpoint, harmony, and form. In the mid-1950s, American composer-theorists began reformulating the conceptual basis of the 19th-century European tradition by proposing new explanatory models of musical structure influenced by the developments in contemporary science, philosophy, and linguistics. Their investigations resulted in their advocacy of a music-theoretical discipline centered at universities and composed of professional theorists or composer-theorists who had mastered an essential tripartite core of knowledge: Schenkerian theory and analysis, history of theory, and the pioneering subfields addressing post-tonal music, twelve-tone theory, and set theory. From the 1980s to the present, new paradigms and approaches including the topics of challenges from the New Musicology and music criticism, musical meaning (encompassing approaches from nonanalytic philosophy and semiotic approaches), phenomenological approaches, approaches from literary theory, popular music studies, non-Western approaches, multimedia studies, timbre, cognition, and social issues such as gender, queer, and disability studies, have further expanded the nature and scope of the discipline. Together these rich and varied fields of music-theoretical inquiry offer a scholarly literature unprecedented in Western musical thought.

General Overviews

In his essay “Behind the Beyond: A Response to Edward Cone,” David Lewin, the leading American music theorist of the last generation, distinguishes between the field of music theory and the subfield of music analysis. Music theory, he states, studies generalized musical systems from which composers derive their materials; music analysis engages the structural individuality of compositions. The general overviews in this section include a historical conspectus of the fields of music theory and analysis as well as surveys of recent developments. Traditional Texts seek to specify the scope of theoretical investigations and their methodologies. Analytic Methodologies view the different ways that American theory has illuminated particular musical works and repertories. Bibliographies offer useful tools to locate analytic literature. The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory is the first and only English-language text to attempt to give an overview of the disciplines of Western music theory and analysis from ancient Greece to the present (see Christensen 2002). Bent 1987 is the first of a series of texts in English to offer an analogous historical overview of the subfield of music analysis. The brief dictionary entry Forte 1974 is crucial for this bibliography in that it provides a short history of 20th-century music theory and analysis with an emphasis on American theory.

  • Bent, Ian. Analysis. With a glossary by William Drabkin. New York: Norton, 1987.

    Presents a survey of the history of musical analysis, with large sections devoted to analysis before 1900 and analysis in the 20th century. A third section is organized by methodologies and musical parameters (“Fundamental Structure,” “Formal Analysis,” “Phrase-Structure Analysis,” etc.). Contains a thorough glossary supplemented by many musical examples.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521623711

    Thirty-one chapters by thirty-two contributing authors, which treat historical eras as well as methodological traditions.

  • Forte, Allen. “Theory.” In Dictionary of Contemporary Music. Edited by John Vinton, 741–753. New York: E. F. Dutton, 1974.

    An overview of music theory from 1900 to 1974 described in terms of the following categories: “New Theories of Tonal Music,” “Theoretical Aspects of Nontraditional Music,” “New Pitch Systems,” “Number and Proportion,” “Explanation of Newer Music,” “12-Tone Theory” (e.g., Babbitt), “Models: Information Theory,” “Linguistic and Logical Approaches,” and “Computational Research.” Contains an extended bibliography.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.