Milton Babbitt

Building upon the twelve-tone method pioneered by Schoenberg, Milton Babbitt expanded the technique to include not only pitch but also other elements of music such as duration and dynamics.  Babbitt was also an innovator in the realm of electronic music, using synthesized sounds and live performance as complements to one other.  Although Babbitt’s works are absent from the traditional symphony repertoires and radio play-lists, undoubtedly he should be considered one of the most original and influential composers of the post-war era.

Early Life and Studies

Born on May 10, 1916 in Philadelphia, Babbitt was raised in Jackson, Mississippi.  He began his musical life early, playing first violin, clarinet, and saxophone, and participating in the explosion of jazz and other popular music forms in the 1920s and 1930s.  Babbitt graduated from high school at age fifteen and went off to the University of Pennsylvania to study mathematics.  However, soon he made the switch to music and entered New York University, studying music there with Marion Bauer, one of the few American musicians of the time familiar with such contemporary European composers as Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

Without a doubt, it was the example of Arnold Schoenberg that had the greatest musical impact on Babbitt’s works.  Even though Schoenberg’s more recent pieces were little known in the United States in the early 1930s, Babbitt sought out scores and learned what he could of their theoretical underpinnings.  This connection to Schoenberg’s ideas was accelerated after 1933 when the Nazis’ rise to power forced Schoenberg, along with many other European composers and musicians, to flee to the safety of the United States.

When the Austrian composer came to America’s East Coast, Babbitt did have the opportunity to meet Schoenberg and it was Babbitt who suggested the word “serial” to describe, in English, the basic principal of Schoenberg’s music.  However, Schoenberg soon emigrated to Los Angeles for the warmer climate, limiting further contact.

After graduating from New York University in 1935, Babbitt began private studies with the American composer Roger Sessions.  When Sessions started an appointment at Princeton University, Babbitt taught music classes there and received one of Princeton’s first advanced degrees in music.

The War and Post-War Compositional Development

During World War II, Babbitt spent most of his time on mathematics, working in Washington on math-related projects for the government while also teaching math at Princeton.  In 1948 he again began teaching music at Princeton, where he remained until 1984.  He has also been on the faculty of Juilliard since 1973.

Babbitt’s pre-war compositions have been largely withdrawn and are not played or performed.  After the war he set out to expand upon and generalize the possibilities suggested by Schoenberg’s work in twelve-tone organization.  For example, Babbitt began applying serial organization to other aspects of music such as duration and dynamics.

In this endeavor Babbitt’s impulses paralleled certain young European composers like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.  But unlike the Europeans, Babbitt's exploration of serialism was less a violent dismissal of the past and more a vital extension of fundamental aspects of music with which he had already been engaged for many years.  Put simply, for Boulez and other Europeans, serialism was a revolutionary act with sociological and even political implications; whereas for Babbitt it was simply a self-evident advance in compositional practice.

Perhaps because of this difference, Babbitt has maintained his basic orientation towards and dedication to twelve-tone procedures, while virtually all of the other members of this compositional generation soon reacted against them and moved on to sometimes drastically different practices.  At the same time, he has consistently avoided using expressionistically extreme musical rhetoric, preferring a cooler and more restrained idiom.  These aspects, along with a penchant for witty or ironic titles (Whirled Series, None but the Lonely Flute, Joy of Sextets), have made him, for all his uncompromising aesthetics, one of the most approachable modern composers.

Relations with Stravinsky and the Development of Electronic Music

When in the early 1950s Igor Stravinsky began experimenting with twelve-tone principles, Babbitt was among the young composers whom the great man sought out for insight.  Babbitt was close to Stravinsky throughout the sixties, even demonstrating for the octogenarian master the new advances in electronic technology.  During one such session, Stravinsky became so excited that he had a mild pulmonary episode and had to be taken to a hospital by cab.

Babbitt had been interested for some time in the possibilities of electronic music.  Happily for him, the confluence of a large Rockefeller Foundation grant and the development of the world’s first fully functioning synthesizer (the Mark II) by the RCA Corporation led to the founding of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in 1960.  This studio became the leading American center for the application of the new technologies in synthesis and recording, which were soon to revolutionize the process by which pieces of music could be created and distributed.

Nearly all of Babbitt’s early works in this field are now considered to be classics.  In particular, his works that combined synthesized music with live performers had a strong impact on later composers.  Two of the best-known examples are Vision and Prayer (1961) and Philomel (1964), both songs for soprano and synthesized sounds.

Music Theory and the Rise of the “Academic” Composer

At around the same time, Babbitt became part of an American movement to include music within the university system.  In Europe, generations of composers had gone to music conservatories to learn the basics of craft and technique thought essential for their profession.  In the United States, the conservatory tradition was much less established.  American composers had traditionally either traveled to Europe for studies or taught themselves as best they could.

Beginning in the 1950s, the American university system, which previously had been the reserve of a very small percentage of the population, underwent a dramatic expansion.  Whole new fields arose and found their place along the traditional subjects of classical literature, foreign languages and mathematics.  Music was one of these newly admitted fields.

Specializations within music had traditionally been limited to composition, performance, and musicology.  However, with the opening of many new departments, the relatively new specialty of music theory also made its way into academia.  The analysis of musical works had not been systematically treated prior to this time; typically it was a sub-section of either compositional studies or classes in harmony and form.  Beginning in the early 1960s, however, a new generation of musicians, largely following Babbitt’s example, began writing complex, specialized analyses of old and new musical works.  The field of music theory – now a considerable portion of all academic departments in the United States – owes its legitimacy, and a large part of its methodology, to Babbitt’s pioneering work.

In today’s world, opportunities for composers of serious concert music are extremely limited.  If not for the support of the university system, many composers would simply find no way to continue producing music.  In this sense there has been something of a return to earlier traditions in which composers were routinely supported by powerful institutions like the Church or the various royal courts.  Then, as now, the result is that music is created that would otherwise never have come to be.

In this development, too, Babbitt has been a great proponent and articulate spokesman.  In a 1958 article he titled “The Composer as Specialist” (but which the magazine, perhaps seeking a racier headline, renamed “Who Cares if you Listen?”), Babbitt put it this way:

…if it be contended that research, even in its least "practical" phases, contributes to the sum of knowledge in a particular realm, what possibly can contribute more to our knowledge of music than a genuinely original composition?  Granting to music the position accorded other arts and sciences promises the sole substantial means of survival for the music I have been describing.  Admittedly, if this music is not supported, the whistling repertory of the man in the street will be little affected, the concert-going activity of the conspicuous consumer of musical culture will be little disturbed.  But music will cease to evolve, and, in that important sense, will cease to live.

Babbitt died on January 29, 2011. He was ninety-four years old.


Babbitt, Milton.  “The Composer as Specialist.”  The Collected Essays of Milton Babbitt.  Ed. Stephen Peles.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.  48-54.
Barkin, Elaine, and Martin Brody: ‘Babbitt, Milton’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 13 November 2006), <>