Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


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Joseph N. Straus

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Analysis; Contextual Inversion; Ellen Taaffe Zwilich; Music; Theory; Transformation


To truly understand the melodic and harmonic structures of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's music, a transformational perspective is essential. Discussing her works in terms of motivic analysis, set theory, and other similar approaches is often illuminating but fails to account for certain types of subtle musical connections. Specifically, those methods focus on tracing particular musical objects but do not typically follow whatever characteristic processes might be applied to those objects. Transformation theory, on the other hand, focuses on that aspect and can thus reveal connections overlooked in other types of analysis.

Most of the pitch processes Zwilich employs can be described as contextual inversions, which include any inversion around some characteristic element within a set rather than around a specific pitch axis. More specifically, she frequently uses contextual inversions wherein a set is inverted around one of its symmetrical subsets, producing one or more common tones. Various authors have introduced common-tone preserving contextual inversions particular to individual set classes, yet so far no one has explored the family of all such transformations. Drawing on work by scholars such as David Lewin, Joseph Straus, Richard Cohn, and others, I will introduce a generalized theory of common-tone preserving contextual inversions and use that framework to provide insight into Zwilich's style.


This essay and the composition, "Twisted Blue," together constitute the author's dissertation but are otherwise unrelated.

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