More Than a Tritone: A Set Theoretic Analysis of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘The Rumble’ from West Side Story (1957)

Awarded Best Student Paper
Rocky Mountain Society of Music Theory 2015

Conference Proposal

In Leonard Bernstein’s 1957 “Introduction to Modern Music” telecast, Bernstein claimed that a “great modern composer” could use “the same old-fashioned notes that music has always used, and use them in a fresh way."1 In this paper, I examine how Bernstein followed his own advice composing West Side Story the same year. In particular, I offer a perspective on Bernstein’s “fresh” and “modern” pitch structures in an analysis of “The Rumble” using set-theoretic tools. Bernstein considered tonality “built into the human organism,” and praised composers who attempted to “modernize” it.2 Although many analyses of West Side Story focus on the tritone as the essential unifying musical motive, I instead interpret the tritone in the context of a three note set class 3-5 (016) and show how Bernstein realizes this set class to create ordered motives and harmonies. After establishing set class 3-5, I use set-theoretic tools to show how Bernstein himself “modernizes” aspects of tonality with particular supersets and certain transposition schema to create centric referential pitch collections.

It may seem contradictory to appropriate set-theoretic tools, tools originally developed for post tonal works, to music that Bernstein directly criticizes in his public lectures. However, by appropriating set theoretic tools to analyze the West Side Story, I highlight commonalities between West Side Story, music of the Second Viennese school, Jazz and American Popular music, and music by Neoclassicist composers, Stravinsky in particular.

Although many analyses of West Side Story focus on the tritone, it is useful and closer to Bernstein’s own conception to interpret the tritone in the context of a three-note collection. In an Aerogram to a Dutch student requesting clues to analyze West Side Story for a school project, Bernstein suggests that the student “look for the relation among songs and dance pieces in terms of these three notes (sort of a Leitmotif)."3 The three-note collection in its various manifestations can be abstractly defined by the unordered set-class 3-5 (016).

After demonstrating how Bernstein realizes set class 3-5, I interpret how the set functions within important supersets and referential collections using atemporal pitch networks. These pitch networks help show how set-class 3-5 and important supersets can both interact within, and move between different centric referential pitch collections while maintaining tight motivic unity.

Selected Bibliography

Bernstein, Leonard. “Introduction to Modern Music.” In The Joy of Music. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959.

__________. The Infinite Variety of Music. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2007.

Block, Geoffrey. Enchanted Evenings: The Broadway Musical from Show Boat to Sondheim. New York Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Block, Steven. “‘Bemsha Swing’: The Transformation of a Bebop Classic to Free Jazz.” Music Theory Spectrum 19, no. 2 (October 1997): 206–231.

Boulez, Pierre, Paule Thévenin, and Stephen Walsh. Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1991.

Capuzzo, Guy. “Sectional Tonality and Sectional Centricity in Rock Music.” Music Theory Spectrum 31, no. 1 (April 2009): 157–174.

Drabkin, William. “Tritone.” Grove Music Online. Web: Oxford University Press, n.d. Accessed November 30, 2014.

Helgert, Lars Erik. Jazz Elements in Selected Concert Works of Leonard Bernstein: Sources, Reception, and Analysis. ProQuest, 2008.

Forte, Allen. “Harmonic Relations: American Popular Harmonies (1925–1950) and Their European Kin.” Contemporary Music Review 19, no. 1 (January 1, 2000): 5–36.

Giger, Andreas. “Bernstein’s The Joy of Music as Aesthetic Credo.” Journal of the Society for American Music 3, no. 03 (August 2009): 311.

Gottlieb, Jack. “The Music of Leonard Bernstein: A Study of Melodic Manipulations. [with Original Compositions] Sonata for Piano, Pieces of Seve, Overture for Orchestra.” D.M.A., University of Illinois: University of Illinois, 1964.

Jaffee Nagel, J. “Psychoanalytic and Musical Ambiguity: The Tritone in Gee, Officer Krupke.” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 58, no. 1 (February 1, 2010): 9–25.

Martin, Henry. “Seven Steps to Heaven: A Species Approach to Twentieth-Century Analysis and Composition.” Perspectives of New Music 38, no. 1 (2000): 129.

Straus, Joseph N. Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory. 3 edition. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Pearson, 2004.

Swain, Joseph Peter. The Broadway Musical: A Critical and Musical Survey.

Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002.Viljoen, Nicol. “The Raised Fourth in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.” Acta Academica 42, no. 2 (2010): 1–26.

Wells, Elizabeth Anne. West Side Story: Cultural Perspectives on an American Musical. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2011.


  1. Leonard Bernstein, “Introduction to Modern Music,” in The Joy of Music (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959), 221. ↩︎

  2. For Bernstein’s argument on tonality as “built into the human organism”, see Leonard Bernstein, The Infinite Variety of Music (Hal Leonard Corporation, 2007), 12. ↩︎

  3. Emphasis added by the author. See Wells, West Side Story, 56–57. ↩︎

Suggested Citation (Chicago 17th ed.)

Posen, Thomas W. 2015. “More Than a Tritone: A Set Theoretic Analysis of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (1967)” Paper presented at the Rocky Mountain Music Theory Society Conference, Fort Collins, Colorado. March 28th, 2015.*