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date: 27 January 2020

Princeton Schoolfree

  • Scott Gleason

Group of composer-theorists collected around Milton Babbitt at Princeton University starting in the mid-1950s. A principal source of high-modernist music and theory, the Princeton School’s approach was instrumental in establishing a rigorous style in the American academy by 1963, when Joseph Kerman coined the term.

The school’s formal programme included the analysis of Schoenbergian 12-note composition and the recasting of Schenkerian theory as an axiomatic system and compositional theory. Compositional techniques developed included combinatoriality, arrays, rhythmic serialization, structures modelled on Schenkerian layers, and invariance. The uniqueness of each composition was central, thus analysis was concerned less with style critique and historical context and more with understanding each composition’s methods and effects. Critique of musical structure followed Babbitt’s teacher and Princeton professor Roger Sessions’s lead by promising an empirical grounding in musical experience.

Some aspects of the school’s institutionalization were the establishment of the graduate programme in music composition (with the first PhD in music composition at Princeton awarded to Godfrey Winham in 1964); the publication, in the journal Perspectives of New Music (1962–), of music theories influenced by contemporaneous developments in mathematics, symbolic logic, and the philosophy of science; and the bracketing of traditional questions in aesthetics, music history, and even the history of music theory. Advances in electronic synthesis and computation (especially at the Bell Telephone Laboratories and Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center) proposed new questions regarding the performance and perception of musical time and the conceptualization of frequency, amplitude, timbre, and vibrato as specifiable dimensions of the musical event.

During the 1970s many of its members followed the lead of Princeton professor J.K. Randall by turning to collective improvisations that sought to challenge existing social and musical hierarchies, and by writing experimental and phenomenological discourses. This turn resulted in writings on music mimicking the sounds, organization, and temporalities of musical compositions, creating musico-linguistic pieces.

The Princeton School’s compositions and attendant discourses reinvigorated the figure of the composer-theorist in the United States after World War II: those associated with the school include Edward T. Cone, Donald Martino, Peter Westergaard, Elaine Barkin, David Lewin, Benjamin Boretz, Charles Wuorinen, Hubert S. Howe, John Rahn, Paul Lansky, Robert Morris, Andrew Mead, and Joseph Dubiel.

Critics noted its antagonism with the concert-going public, its seemingly impenetrable theoretical discourses, its formalist bracketing of musico-social questions, and its aurally ungraspable musics. By the turn of the century the school had ceased to capture the cultural imagination, but for a time the Princeton School represented the next frontier in musical knowledge (at least in North America), having attempted a reconsideration of every traditional notion in musical thought, and grasped at musical ideas and sounds that were but faintly imagined beforehand.


  • P.H. Lang, ed.: Problems of Modern Music: the Princeton Seminar in Advanced Musical Studies (New York, 1962)
  • J. Kerman: ‘“The Proper Study of Music”: a Response’, PNM 2/1 (1963), 151–60
  • B. Boretz: Meta-Variations: Studies in the Foundations of Musical Thought (Red Hook, NY, 1969/R)
  • J.K. Randall: Compose Yourself: a Manual for the Young (Red Hook, NY, 1970/R)
  • J. Kerman: Contemplating Music (Cambridge, MA, 1986), 60–112
  • M. Babbitt: The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt, ed. S. Peles and others (Princeton, 2003)
  • A. Girard: Music Theory in the American Academy (diss., Harvard U., 2007)
  • M. Schuijer: Analyzing Atonal Music: Pitch-Class Set Theory and its Contexts (Rochester, 2008)
  • S. Gleason: Princeton Theory’s Problematics (diss., Columbia U., 2013)
Perspectives of New Music