Music Milton Babbitt
Zachary Bernstein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0283


Milton Babbitt (b. 1916–d. 2011) was one of 20th-century America’s leading composers and a foundational figure in contemporary music theory. His music introduced a number of serial techniques, including the development of contrapuntal arrays and the extension of twelve-tone procedures to the dimension of rhythm. He was an innovator in the realm of electronic music, composing works for the R.C.A. Mark II Sound Synthesizer. As a scholar, Babbitt set the program for the first generation of academic American music theory. Theory, in his view, would be empirically grounded, expressed in rigorous language, and informed by analytical philosophy, cognitive science, and mathematics; it would, in short, become a formal research discipline. His papers on the twelve-tone system exemplify his novel vision of the field. He also gained notoriety as a polemicist: if music theory and contemporary composition are to operate according to the standards of research, he claims, they belong in the university, accountable to the judgment of knowledgeable peers and not to the wider public. These developments in musical technique, theoretical approach, and social positioning have attracted a great deal of commentary. Many analysts have set themselves the task of deciphering his novel compositional techniques; almost as many have turned to the perhaps even more daunting challenge of characterizing how his music is heard. Babbitt’s vision of music theory, influential as it has been, has received spirited critique, both in general and as a tool to explicate his music. And as a historical figure, Babbitt has attracted interest as a paragon of high modernism, an influential shaper of music theory, and an exemplar of Cold War cultural politics. The sources below give an extensive survey of Babbitt’s own writings, lectures, and interviews along with a sampling of the best analytical, critical, and historical work on the composer.

Archival Sources

Babbitt’s unpublished materials are unusually concentrated: all known extant sketch materials and correspondence are at the Library of Congress. Nonetheless, both the New York Public Library and the Princeton University Library also contain materials useful for the Babbitt scholar.

  • Milton Babbitt Collection. Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

    The only repository of Babbitt’s unpublished materials. Materials are available for most pieces from 1970 on, including array charts, drafts, manuscripts, errata, relevant correspondence, copies of scholarship about the texts he set, drafts of program notes or pre-concert talks, and concert programs. Two folders contain assorted materials from earlier music: one with materials primarily from the mid-1940s, one from the 1960s. The contents of Babbitt’s personal library are recorded.

  • New York Public Library, New York.

    The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts holds several rare audio and video recordings of interviews with the composer.

  • Princeton University Library. Princeton, NJ.

    Princeton University was Babbitt’s professional home for most of his life, and the Princeton University Library retains his personnel files as well as other documents relevant to his time at the university.

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