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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Online Resources
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Historical Source Texts
  • Monographs on Serial Composers
  • Foundational Articles on Twelve-Tone Theory
  • Later Compositional Theory
  • Critical Perspectives on Serialism

Music Serialism
Zachary Bernstein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0265


Since Arnold Schoenberg developed the twelve-tone system in the early 1920s, serialism has been the subject of a continuous torrent of scholarship. At least in part, this is the result of an experimental attitude that has marked serialism since its inception. No two major serial composers have used the same set of tools; indeed, the creation of new serial techniques seems to have been a necessary stage in the growth of a serial composer. This individuality naturally has consequences for scholarship. For one, it has meant a profusion of writing by composers. Some of this writing comes as compositional theory, as composers—from some mixture of a desire to share fruitful research, to facilitate the comprehension of their music, and to stake claims on their inventions—have written about serial procedures that interest them creatively. Some comes as aesthetic manifesto, as composers seek to justify their unique approaches. The great diversity of serial compositional techniques and aesthetics has also led to a flourishing of analysis, as analysts work to define and interpret the many separate practices composers have developed. Yet serialism’s individuality has also contributed to dramatic critical pushback: a running theme among commentators has been that serial music is inaccessible to nonspecialists. The prose written by serial composers has also generated much critical commentary, for many justifications given for their work have been shown to be problematic from political, cultural, and historical perspectives. The sources included in this bibliography give a sampling of the best work from all of these discursive branches as well as a selection of more general resources to help new students of serialism find their footing. Finally, a word about the scope of the article is in order. In the English-language literature, “serialism” and, interchangeably, “serial music” refer broadly to music based on systematic permutations of pitch classes or other elements. Twelve-tone music, accordingly, is the first prominent instance of serialism. French scholarship uses a similarly broad connotation of “musique sérielle,” which encompasses “Le dodécaphonisme” or “musique dodécaphonique” (i.e., twelve-tone music). German scholars, in contrast, have tended to differentiate between “Zwölftonmusik” (twelve-tone music) and “serielle Musik,” the latter distinguishing itself by the application of serial techniques to rhythm, timbre, intensity, and other musical dimensions. This article adopts the English-language definition of serialism.

General Overviews

The following sources each cover serialism, or some aspect of serialism, from a broad perspective. Only Whittall 2008 truly attempts generality; the others all offer deeper dives into some facet of serial history or practice. Borio and Danuser 1997, Grant 2001, Grassl and Kapp 1996, and Iddon 2013 each cover postwar European serialism. Peles 1998 and Straus 2009 address developments in North America. Perle 1991, Eimert 1950, and Covach 2002 are concerned with theory, although differently so: Perle and Eimert introduce the mechanics of serial and atonal music, while Covach presents a history of twelve-tone theory. Beiche 1985 and Blumröder 1985 are principally concerned with the etymological history of the German terms “Zwölftonmusik” and “serielle Musik,” respectively.

  • Beiche, Michael. “Zwölftonmusik.” In Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie. Vol. 6. Edited by Hans Eggebrecht. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1985.

    Beiche traces the term “Zwölftonmusik” (the cognate of “twelve-tone music”) from its prehistory as a designation of temperament through its development in relation to twelve-tone composition. Many significant early sources are cited and discussed. In German.

  • Blumröder, Christoph von. “Serielle Musik.” In Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie. Vol. 5. Edited by Hans Eggebrecht. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1985.

    This resource outlines the history and etymology of the German term “serielle Musik” (the cognate of “serial music”), helpfully contrasting it with its English and French cognates and identifying its varied connotations in an extensive range of significant (primarily German and French) sources. In German.

  • Borio, Gianmario, and Hermann Danuser, eds. Im Zenit der Moderne: Die Internationalen Ferienkurse für Neuen Musik Darmstadt: 1946–66. 4 vols. Freiburg, Germany: Rombach, 1997.

    A monumental edited collection on the Darmstadt Summer Courses. Includes two volumes of historical essays and a volume reproducing historical documents. A fundamental resource for the student of postwar European serialism. In German, French, Italian, and English.

  • Covach, John. “Twelve-Tone Theory.” In The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory. Edited by Thomas Christensen, 603–627. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521623711.021

    A general overview of research on twelve-tone and serial theory from the 1920s to the present, with a particular focus on the first few decades of work on the subject. This essay features excellent overviews of relatively obscure figures, such as Josef Matthias Hauer, Herbert Eimert, Richard S. Hill, Ernst Krenek, and René Leibowitz, in addition to lucid treatments of more prominent composers and theorists. Available online by subscription.

  • Eimert, Herbert. Lehrbuch der Zwölftontechnik. Wiesbaden, Germany: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1950.

    A brief and accessible introductory volume on classical twelve-tone technique. In addition to providing a quick overview of several important basic concepts, the book is of historical interest as among the first of its kind. In German.

  • Grant, M. J. Serial Music, Serial Aesthetics: Compositional Theory in Post-War Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    Grant writes a history of European serialism, primarily through a close reading of Die Reihe. In addition to sketching historical context, she closely examines the aesthetics of various European serialists. A range of relevant issues are discussed, including aleatory, music and language, and electronic music. Grant further draws valuable connections between serialism and innovations in other arts.

  • Grassl, Markus, and Reinhard Kapp, ed. Darmstadt-Gespräche: Die Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik in Wien. Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 1996.

    An oral history of the Darmstadt Summer Courses through interviews with eleven participants. The volume also reproduces many pertinent documents, such as concert programs, correspondence, reviews, and photographs, and includes an extensive bibliography. In German.

  • Iddon, Martin. New Music at Darmstadt: Nono, Stockhausen, Cage, and Boulez. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139519571

    A detailed history of the early years of the Darmstadt Summer Courses—the years during which a definable “Darmstadt School” of serial composers comes into focus. Iddon demonstrates that “multiple serialism” incorporates a more varied group of approaches than is commonly acknowledged. The arrival of John Cage in 1958 is the turning point of the book: Iddon catalogues the great impact Cage had on Darmstadt School composers. Available online by subscription.

  • Peles, Stephen. “Serialism and Complexity.” In The Cambridge History of American Music. Edited by David Nicholls, 496–516. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521454292.019

    A reception history of Schoenberg in America. Peles provides a particularly good account of how institutions of various kinds—such as performance groups, universities, foundations, and professional associations—reacted to Schoenberg’s influence, facilitating and conditioning his growing impact. Biographical snippets of many important figures are offered. His discussion of the contrast between American and European approaches to serialism clarifies intellectual, musical, and situational differences. Available online by subscription.

  • Perle, George. Serial Composition and Atonality: An Introduction to the Music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. 6th ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

    An introduction to “free” (i.e., nonserial) atonality and serialism. As his title suggests, Perle’s primary focus is the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, but other composers are also discussed, particularly in the discussion of free atonality. The second half of the book, on early serialism, would be an excellent starting point for the student new to the topic—it introduces many important concepts with a range of pertinent examples.

  • Straus, Joseph N. Twelve-Tone Music in America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    Straus provides a revisionist account of American serialism, structuring the second half of his book around a series of “myths” to be debunked. In combination with the analyses of the first half of the book (see the annotation for Straus 2009, cited under Analyses of Postwar American Serialists), Straus offers a vigorous argument that American serialism is a more varied, flexible, and creatively implemented set of practices than is commonly suspected.

  • Whittall, Arnold. The Cambridge Introduction to Serialism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

    A brisk and breezy overview of most of the major personalities, techniques, and controversies of serialism over the past century. The book is written in a style friendly to students new to the subject. Given the scope of the study and its introductory intent, Whittall naturally sacrifices depth and precision for breadth.

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