on 3 February 2013
This book, written by Allen Forte (*not* Miriam Forte as Amazon's listing erroneously states [March 2013: this has since been rectified by Amazon]), is a seminal work in the codification of quantitative analysis of pitch material in atonal music. It sets out a systematic approach to labelling groups of pitch classes, explores various relations between them, including similarity relations and set-complex theory, and is illustrated by numerous examples.
Although the book is generally well organised, the presentation can be at times confounding, for example it is almost possible to mistake figure numbers for page numbers, and the appendix mapping the similarity relations is a little challenging to read (it might require a ruler to ensure the tables are being read correctly). The explanations are fairly good, although some sections might require multiple re-readings in order to obtain a sound grasp of the topic, yet this book is (notwithstanding its rigour) more approachable than much literature on this topic, which takes knowledge of the theory as a given. Two other good guides are Rahn: /Basic Atonal Theory/ and Straus: /Introduction to Post-tonal theory/, although it should be noted that there are some small but important differences in methodology, for example in calculating the prime form of a pitch-class set and in the syntax of the set-classes as set out in the index/appendix (although all use the same reference numbers, thankfully [May 2013: although Forte's numeration is almost universally followed in the scholarly literature, I have recently read that the late Elliott Carter used his own idiosyncratic numeration, which is detailed in David Schiff's book]). Ideally, I suggest reading all three in the order: Forte, Rahn (chapters 1 to 3), Straus, Rahn (chapters 4 and 5).
Please note that this book does *not* include reference to set-class genera theory, for which you should read: Forte: "Pitch-Class Set Genera and the Origin of Modern Harmonic Species" in the /Journal of Music Theory/ Vol.32 №2 (Fall 1988), pp.187-270; followed by (for a contrasting yet arguably complementary approach) Parks: "Pitch-Class Set Genera: My Theory, Forte's Theory" in /Music Analysis/ Vol.17 №2 (July 1998), pp. 206-226.
Forte is frequently lambasted for his theory and his applications thereof, and it is true that some of the latter are of dubious pertinence, yet his theory does -- when appositely applied -- offer a clarity that expressions such as "a kind of half-diminished seventh with a flattened sixth that is spelled as a sharpened fifth" do not, and enables patterns to be discerned and explained. If you want to understand how Forte's theory works and how to apply it for yourself, or if you simply want to be able to criticise it from an informed perspective, then this book is essential reading. If you consider yourself to be a serious music analyst with an interest in atonal repertoire, then you really ought to be familiar with this methodology.
on 19 March 2011
I'm posting this review just to give some balance to the other two that exist for this book at the time of writing, each of which gives the book only one star. Having nothing but one-star reviews for such an influential book just seems bizarre, especially since some some of the weird reasons given suggest the reviewers have a poor handle on what Forte is up to. There are doubtless more up-to-date books that describe Forte's results alongside those of later theorists in a more accessible way; this text remains a classic.
on 23 April 2002
Fortean analysis suffers from as Perle put it
I cannot recommend it at all, even though it is often still regarded as #the# book on atonality.
...many of the analytical decisions are arbitrary, and self-serving. Many times examples illustrate a point and don't relate to the composition as a whole, and nowhere does his analysis make 'musical' sense and relate to the acoustic experience of music.
A case in point is Ives Unanswered question, where amongst other things he notes that major and minor chords are the same PC set (a revelation indeed!), and also combines into sets verticalisations that Ives cared nothing for: the strings play independently from the trumpet and winds, and at their own tempo - the verticalisations are fortuitous. To analyse them is to find order in the sound of twelve radios tuned to random stations.
As for the math - only Lewin has perpetrated a more impenetrable explanation of music.
Read something else.
on 31 December 1999
Among the crimes committed by this book are abuse of punctuation and terminology. I was fairly far into this before I realized that by "pcs" its author didn't mean "pitch class set" (or post-coital syndrome), but "pitch classes". Had he checked any elementary grammar guide, he would have learned that the plural of this sort of abbreviation requires an apostrophe: not "pcs", but "pc's". Also: tetrachords and hexachords are contiguous segments of a scale, melodic pattern, or tone row, not arbitrary four-note and six-note "pitch collections". What the author calls "tetrachords" and "hexachords" are really tetrads and hexads. He should call them tetrads and hexads. I wouldn't make so much of these solecisms had this book any real content. Oh, well. (Read instead George Perle's "Serialism and Atonality".)