I was just reading "A generative theory of tonal music" by Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff, and my impression was that it is a monumental work. However, I haven't found much that has been done by other authors to contribute to the subject since it came out in 1983. Are there any more recent works that build on their approaches?

  • i don't have an answer but based on the description of the book (i have not read the book) it reminds me of this.... youtube.com/watch?v=ne6tB2KiZuk
    – b3ko
    Jun 14, 2018 at 15:15
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    The book's Wikipedia page states that "The theory has been influential, spurring further work by its authors and other researchers in the fields of music theory, music cognition and cognitive musicology" and the footnotes and bibliography list a dozen later publications in the field. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generative_theory_of_tonal_music Jun 14, 2018 at 21:09

1 Answer 1


From what I've seen, there are academics that are big advocates, but also many that aren't at all enthused. I think some of the pros and cons being discussed tend to mirror the way in which Chomsky's generative grammar has also kind of gone up and down in status.

There is a lot to be said for new work being done via brain scanning, also from the direction of cognitive psychology building on foundational studies on sensory perception and on how we encode experience, and these new insights are not so dependent on complicated grammar-tree rules.

At issue, in part, what does a complete analysis get you that you didn't have before doing the "generative grammar" analysis of a piece? If it isn't giving particularly meaningful new insights about the music, is it worth the trouble? And believe me, figuring out their approach means embracing a considerable learning curve.

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