Strategies for Introducing Pitch-Class Set Theory in the Undergraduate Classroom

Stanley V. Kleppinger

Even as pitch-class set theory has been widely integrated into undergraduate music theory curricula, it has remained one of the more difficult topics of the typical undergraduate program for instructors to illuminate and for students to master. A number of factors contribute to this phenomenon: the atonal repertoire for which it was devised is shunned by many students; the overt affinity with mathematics in many presentations of the theory makes it anathema to some; the theory's particular employment of inversional equivalence has no clear antecedent in musical theories already familiar to undergraduates; and the theory's jargon seems mysterious and dense to the uninitiated. As Joseph Straus once put it, "Atonal set theory has a bad reputation." My purpose here is to offer practical suggestions regarding the initial presentation of the theory to help students quickly acquire an easy fluency with both its fundamental tenets and its analytic value. The teaching ideas offered here, depending on the instructor's own curricular priorities, may serve as a springboard to more advanced exploration of related theoretical concepts or to beginning analyses of post-tonal music. In either case, to be successful students must master the conceptual framework of the theory and develop some fluency in its fundamentals. These are my goals as I introduce this powerful analytic tool to my own students.