Week 4: Set theory and segmentation (F18)

Last modified on August 4, 2023

This week, you will learn about set theory and segmentation. You’ll analyze music using set theory, apply set theory terminology, and critique the usefulness of set theory.

Due Friday, September 14

Introduction to Set Theory

Locate the scan of Chapter 2 of . This textbook is the go-to text for atonal music theory. For this reason I’ve placed the whole thing on reserve at the library.

Read pages 43–71 of Chapter 2 to get introduced to set theory.

As a supplement, you may also wish to watch my tutorial that explains how to use clock faces to calculate normal form and prime form. This video is available on Blackboard under Lecture Videos. For a sheet of blank clockfaces to download, click here.

Concept check

Complete the Concept Check quiz on Blackboard to see if you are understanding the set theory concepts properly.


    1. Listen to the first movement of Bartok’s String Quartet No. 4.
      [embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTnbrLXEGjI[/embedyt]
    2. Read Straus’s analysis of the opening of this movement, which is in Chapter 2, pages 81–86.
    3. Write a response essay (NB: NOT a summary!) to Straus’s analysis of Bartok, at least 700 words long.
      A response essay is your personal take on the readings, and thus you shouldn’t be trying to write the “right answer,” but rather your opinion and reaction to what you’ve read.
    4. Below are some questions to inspire you, which you may choose to answer (you do not have to answer all, or any, of them!):
      • In the last paragraph on page 83, Straus describes neighbor notes in the texture. This is interesting! What is a neighbor note in tonal music? How do you recognize neighbor tones in tonal music? How can we recognize them in post-tonal music?
      • What are some differences in our interpretation of neighbor notes in tonal vs. atonal music?
      • At the top of page 76, Straus notes why one particular arrival on Bb-C-D-E sounds cadential. Think about cadences more broadly and generally. How do we know what a cadence is in tonal music? How else could something sound cadential in post-tonal music?
      • How aurally salient (i.e., hearable) are the structures that Straus creates?


      • Go to Blackboard and navigate to your group blog. Note: you have new groups starting this week! Be sure to post in your Wks 4–6 group, not the old Wks 1–3 group.
      • Click the “create blog entry” button, and paste your text directly into the text box, rather than uploading an attachment.

Due Monday, September 17

Respond to peers

Respond to the members of your peer group by clicking the “comment” button under their blog post and typing your response directly into the text box, rather than uploading an attachment.

Analysis assignment


      • On page 86 of the Straus Chapter 2 reading, you will find Guided Analysis 2.1: Ruth Crawford Seeger, Piano Prelude No. 9, mm. 19–24. Read through the questions given.
      • Listen to the recording of the excerpt (found in the Recordings folder).
      • Analyze this excerpt according to the prompts. You may wish to use a combination of score annotation and verbal responses—do whatever you need to get your point across efficiently.


      • You will be assessed on the following concepts
        • Understanding of interval types (interval classes, pitch intervals)
        • Understanding of set classes
        • Understanding of transformations (Tn and TnI)
        • Interpretation
      • You will be given detailed feedback through the rubric. Click “View rubric” in the gradebook to access this.
      • Assignments are always graded pass/fail, with a threshold of 70% to pass.


      • Submit your assignment on Blackboard.
      • Upload your assignment as a .pdf attachment. Please do not use other file types.

Due Wednesday, September 19

Reflection post

      1. Read (online article; click here). You’re not undergraduates of course, but many points still apply.
      2. Write a response to this article in which you articulate your experience with set theory this past week and how useful (or not) you think it is as an analytical technique. Ideas to get you started:
        • What are set theory’s strengths and limitations?
        • What musical information does set theory privilege, and what does it ignore?
        • Is this applicable to lots of repertoire, or just to atonal music?
        • Will you be able to use this methodology “in real life” (whatever that means to you)?


      • Go to Blackboard and navigate to Reflection Journals (on the sidebar).
      • Click the appropriate link for this week.
      • Click “Create journal entry” and paste your text directly into the text box, rather than uploading an attachment.


If articles are not available online, you should be able to find them in the Readings folder.

Straus, Joseph Nathan. 2016. Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Buchler, Michael. 2017. “A Case Against Teaching Set Classes to Undergraduates.” Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy 5. http://flipcamp.org/engagingstudents5/essays/buchler.html.