Tuesday, April 7, 2009

BEDA Day 7: Jeff Pressing on the Application of Set Theory Analysis to Jazz


"Pitch Class Set Structures in Contemporary Jazz"
by Jeff Pressing
Jazzforschung (Jazz Research) 14 (1982): 133-72.

This article is well worth the read, and I don't have time to detail its claims tonight - perhaps an elaboration is in store tomorrow. Essentially, Pressing uses the analytical tools of set theory - an interval-based method of describing music originally created to make sense of free atonal works of Schoenberg, Webern, &c. - to examine a wide variety of jazz music from traditional big band style to a harmonically adventurous John Coltrane solo.

This technique seems out of place at first, but Pressing puts the language of set theory to good use to point out some interesting relationships between chord choices (specifically, Forte set 6-33, and interval vectors 1 & 6) and what he calls "non-pitch structural parameters" such as dynamics, articulations, and phrase beginnings and endings. It's a novel idea and very clearly presented, though it may need some more evidence to back it up. His analysis continues, but my post cannot, as it is nearly bedtime!


Jeff Pressing was by all accounts a brilliant and fascinating character, studying both science and music in great depth. Here are a few key dates:

1946 born
1962 admitted to CalTech (age 15)
1972 earned Ph.D. in physical chemistry at UCal
1975 joined the music faculty of Australia's La Trobe University
2002 died (age 55)

Pressings publications between 1978 and 2001 covered topics including jazz, free jazz, improvisation, synthesizers, and the psychology of music. Although I know it's no substitute for a bona fide biography, I wish Wikipedia had an article on him. I wonder what else he was in to.

Read the abstract of an article on Pressing's passing here. This article, written by Ben Williams in Music Perception (2003), is the source of all the biographic info I've presented here.

For further writings in his memory, visit Auditory's listserv message by Kate Stevens, as well as an obituary by Raymond Gill from theage.com.au.


* - Did you know that "&c" stood for "et cetera" (or etc.) back in the good old days? Or, at least as recently as Mark Twain. I think it's derived from "&" = "and", plus "cetera" = "so on". Cool stuff. I first saw it in the journals of Lewis and Clark, which are also a great read. Check out their terrible depictions of Montana, until they hit the beautiful Great Falls!


  1. Okay, so that was all quite obscure, but a dare to get more familiar with the composers and ideas you are considering.

    Until coming to your final endnote. How fun to see a reference to the L&C journals! Do you still read those? I'm glad we had the chance to discuss them for real. That was a memorable class. Thanks for the flashback!

  2. Haha. Music is a legitimate academic field. I'm allowed to be obscure sometimes. :) I'll probably expound later today...

    No, I don't still read the L&C Journals, but I remember them! Fun stuff. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Didn't mean to be critical in any way. I totally respect music as an academic discipline. And I appreciate that I'm not the primary audience for the blog. My comment was more a self-deprecating acknowledgment that I'm a novice in the academic study of music, and was latching on to something I recognized. :o)

    P.S. Natalie is counting down the days on GChat--does that mean it's official?

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