Tuesday, April 5, 2011

12-Tone Texts

Budding composers have often asked me which texts I recommend as introductions to 12-tone music that outline compositional techniques required to effectively compose in this idiom.  While there are many books of which I am aware, what follows are those I believe to be the most beneficial for composers who have had few encounters with this type of music.  These books, though “Reader’s Digest-like” texts for experienced composers, should enlighten young composers exploring 12-tone composition:

1. Simple Composition by Charles Wuorinen
Though opinionated and domineering, especially in the realm of aesthetics, this text is an excellent 12-tone primer.  Covering the basic series, transformations, Stravinsky verticals (hexachordal transposition-rotation), etc., Wuorinen also discusses Milton Babbitt’s time-point system, and the use of serial techniques to construct large-scale musical forms.  Though the author can be full of himself at times, take him for his tools, not his talk.   

2. Lehrbuch der Zwöfltontechnik by Herbert Eimert
This is a wonderful, musical text that demonstrates a variety of creative ways to derive 12-tone rows for numerous musical contexts.  A straightforward approach to basic 12-tone theory, this introductory text is only available in German.  (The subtle differences between American and German 12-tone “philosophy” are quite interesting.)  This little book also delves briefly into duration and dynamic rows, and permutations.    

3. Serialism by Arnold Whittal
This text provides a comprehensive survey of 12-tone and serial music from a British perspective, demonstrating numerous techniques budding composers can apply to their own compositions.  Filled with relevant musical examples and an ample bibliography, this is a text that beginners will find useful for reference.

4. Studies in Counterpoint by Ernst Krenek 
Though these studies in 12-tone counterpoint often result in music that sounds like late Krenek--similar to the way some of Hindemith’s books encourage students to write like Hindemith--these graded exercises provide composers who are new to 12-tone music with a solid contrapuntal approach for writing in this style.  In spite of the interjection of Krenek’s own stylistic ideals, the majority of the book is extremely instructional, and the exercises are worth working through.  

5. Materials and Techniques of Twentieth-Century Music by Stefan Kostka
This book, though also a survey, contains detailed sections devoted to 12-tone composition that may enlighten young composers.  Matrices and other devices are explained in detail, and the presentation of material is extremely clear.  To get the “basics”, this book is a good place to start.  It also contains various exercises and music to analyze.  (It is also written in a refreshing, objective manner.)

6. Serial Composition by Reginald Smith Brindle
This text deals with 12-tone melody, harmony, form, orchestration, etc., and outlines some generic stylistic guidelines.  Written by a composer, it presents practical material in a musical way so that its application can be grasped immediately.  Many excerpts from compositions are utilized, and a variety of creative ideas are introduced.

7. Post Tonal Theory by Joseph N. Straus
An introduction to set theory and 12-tone music, this book should be read following the others in this list.  It introduces interval vectors and other compositional ideas/classifications that may prove useful when composing 12-tone music.  Each chapter contains relevant exercises to reinforce pertinent material.  

Though there are many books that deal with 12-tone composition, the seven above provide ample practical advice for composers just beginning to explore the vast world of 12-tone music.  Happy composing!


  1. You left out what I think is the best esplanation of why anybody might want to write twelve-tone music, although it's not terribly terribly technical, which is Words about Music by Babbitt. I should think that anybody interested in 12 tone composition would want to check out the Collected Essays of Babbitt as well.

    I have to say that although the Wourenin IS clear and simple about basic concepts. It'd constant ideological comments are, to say the least, off putting. I'm not sure there's anything in the Wourenin that isn't in the Straus.

  2. I meant to type explanation, of course

  3. Yes, aside from Wuorinen's own "Nesting Method", the Straus covers similar material, and more. (I find its presentation makes basic techniques not as immediate to beginners, but with proper study one does learn a lot from it.) I also agree that Milton Babbitt's "Words About Music" is a great introductory book. For additional history, I'd also suggest "Arnold Schoenberg's Journey" by Allen Shawn, "Arnold Schoenberg" by Charles Rosen, and "The Life of Webern" by Kathryn Bailey.