THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED: HOWARD HANSON'S SET THEORY

Allen Cohen
Hunter College of CUNY

Although Howard Hanson (1896-1981) is generally known as a composer, conductor, administrator, and teacher, he also made a small but significant contribution to music theory in a 1960 book entitled Harmonic Materials of Modern Music: Resources of the Tempered Scale. This book proposed a system of classification for every possible collection of pitch-classes in the chromatic scale, showed ways of deriving larger collections from smaller ones, and demonstrated significant relationships among them. Hanson's theory anticipated, in significant ways, musical set theory as expounded in the works of Allen Forte and other writers.

Few except Hanson's students, and their students, have ever read his book, or know virtually anything of his theory or its somewhat arcane terminology. Thus most theorists, without bothering to read Harmonic Materials or even knowing the nature of its subject, have assumed that it is simply a blind alley not worth examining. Nevertheless, Hanson's theory is of interest, not merely as a curious footnote to the history of music theory, but as a potentially fruitful source for further investigation, and as a fascinating and impressive achievement on its own merits--an achievement for which Hanson has rarely received credit.

A comparison between contemporary set-class theory and Hanson's theory shows that while Hanson's theory was first, set theory is generally clearer, more consistent, and easier to interpret in a number of ways. Nevertheless, Hanson's theory can be shown to offer analytical insights into the relations between sonorities that set theory does not.


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