[Smt-talk] inability to perceive "Dominant" (was: Classical Form and Recursion)

art samplaski agsvtp at hotmail.com
Sun Apr 12 10:57:01 PDT 2009

While I've been staying out of this discussion, after
noting this exchangein the most recent digest between
Fred and Dmitri, replying, I feel compelled to add
one thing:
>> The study of musical tension is attractive partly because
>> intuitions about it are so spontaneous. The average listener cannot
>> name a V or a I chord but nevertheless responds to a progression in
>> terms of degrees of tension. Put another way, a chord has a
>> particular location in tonal space; the listener has implicit
>> knowledge of the space and feels motion and force as patterns of
>> tension.
> I think there's more of a difficulty here than you do. Consider:
> 2. We all agree that ordinary listeners cannot reliably name whether
> something is a V or I chord.
I agree with Fred's underlying principle, that "average
listeners" (here taken to mean, are untrained but have
listened to a fair deal of Western music) can distinguish
"dominant" because of tonal tension. I think the problem
is, both of them are getting caught in the trap (now
centuries-long) of conflating the _concept_ of "dominant"
and "tonic" with specific instantiations (I vs. V chords).
Years ago I was shown a trick apparently done at some
summer music camps of singing a popular song but with
the words one note off. Try singing the first verse of
"God Save the Queen" this way to some "ordinary
Save our gracious Queen, Long
live our noble Queen, God
save the Queen...!!!!!!
ANYONE who knows that tune, whether in its original or
U.S.-filked lyrics, will go "Augh!" or something similar
when you stop one note short of tonic. Likely a lot of
folks will sing the missing note just to relieve the
tension. Ask them why, and you'll get a variety of answers
that boil down to something approaching, you stopped
short of home base and the resting point, leaving me
hanging; I *had* to finish it!
I submit that THAT is "knowing what dominant is,"
whether or not they've any capacity to "reliably
distinguish a I and V chord." They recognize something
in the music that creates a sense of being a step away
from home base and an imminent expectation of return
there. _That's_ "Dominant," not a V chord.
We need to unbundle/decouple our ideas of structural
function from specific pitch/chord instantiations.
Otherwise we'll never be able to explain how, e.g.,
something like an [0167] could act as tonic or dominant
in some piece. (And no, I neither know of any such piece
nor how to do it--a challenge for a better composer
than me.:)
Art Samplaski
Ithaca, NY
Windows Live™: Keep your life in sync.

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