joseph schillinger’s reharmonization dial (1940) and a bit more


Joseph Schillinger – Reharmonization Dial (1940)

Joseph Schillinger occupies a strange and interesting place in the history of Twentieth Century music. He was a composer, music theorist, and educator. Born and educated in Russia, he immigrated to America in the late 20’s or early 30’s and rapidly grew to great prominence. His ideas regarding social access, music theory and composition were among the most popular of that era (but have become obscure in the years since his death), leading to his becoming an advisor to George Gershwin, Earle Brown, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Henry Cowell, and many others. In 1930 he also collaborated with Cowell and Léon Theremin during the premier of their realization of the worlds first drum machine – the Rhythmicon.



Joseph Schillinger’s Graphic Chart for Fats Waller’s (with Andy Razaf and Harry Brooks) Ain’t Misbehavin’ 

Schillinger was a remarkable and progressive individual. His theories, largely realized with the Schillinger System –  a composition method based on mathematical processes, focusing on specific ideas regarding rhythm, harmony, melody, counterpoint, form, and emotional meaning, could be applied to any music, and were intended to free composers and musicians, regardless of skill level or education, from tradition. It was a means of liberating music from the past and exclusion. He introduced a system of numerical analysis of pitches based on principles which were later incorporated into set theory, and was among the first to utilize algorithmic compositional techniques, and graphic notation.


Joseph Schillinger’s Graphic Chart for Johann Sebastian Bach’s Invention no. 8 in F

History has largely obscured Schillinger and his many achievements from view, bestowing credit for his accomplishments on others, or denying that he was there.  I have no answers for why this might have been, but the effects of his ideas still resonate around us. I first encountered his name in an unexpected place – at the heart of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. This collective, founded by Muhal Richard Abrams, Jodie Christian, Steve McCall, and Phil Cohran in 1965, represents one of the most important creative outputs of the 20th century. Whether you call it Free-Jazz, Great Black Music, or advanced composition, it occupies a singular place in the history of music. Though the AACM draws heavily on free-improvisation, Muhal Richard Abrams (who is the movement’s great figurehead) strongly advocated inclusiveness, collective support and education, as well as the importance of composing music in written form. He believed that these were the best ways for music to be realized, and for it to have lasting effect. Prior the establishment of the AACM, Charles Stepney had introduced Abrams to ideas of Schillinger. Finding that the resonated with his own beliefs and objectives, he quickly incorporated them, and later introduced them as the primary method used by the AACM. Though many of the collective’s more prominent names came to develop their own methods over time, Schillinger’s ideas form the bedrock, and offered access to creation and composition to a great many remarkable artists who might not otherwise been so enabled, or come to be so prolific. If for nothing else, for this we owe him great thanks and recognition. Without him, it’s terrifying to imagine what might not have been.

The Reharmonization Dial from 1940, pictured above, comes from the archives of the Berkley School of Music in Boston, the school which Schillinger founded as Schillinger House in 1945. Not unlike Arnold Schoenberg’s 12 tone wheel chart, which I discussed a little while back, it is both a thing of beauty and a rare window into another era of progressive creative thinking. I hope you take the time to explore its creator more.

-Bradford Bailey



Charles Stepney introcuded muhal.



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