[Smt-talk] Classical Form and Recursion

Dmitri Tymoczko dmitri at Princeton.EDU
Sun Apr 5 12:22:36 PDT 2009

> Typical syntactic units of language are sentences, typically 10 to  
> 25 words long. Typical synctactic units of music are movements, at  
> times 10 to 25 minutes long. This difference, which indeed is  
> dramatic, may suffice in itself to indicate a much higher capacity  
> for long term syntactic relations (including recursion) in music  
> than in language.

Well, let's be careful here, as there's a danger of assuming what  
we're trying to prove.  Novels can be very long, but this doesn't  
tell us anything, since recursive structure occurs only at the  
sentence level.  It is possible that the same holds for music --  
perhaps recursion exists only at the level of the phrase, with larger- 
scale structures being organized rather like the paragraphs in a novel.

>   Recursion needs not be perceived to exist: our capacity to  
> perceive it may vary a lot, and some large scale recursions may not  
> be perceptible at all in normal conditions. This does not permit to  
> conclude that they do not exist.

Agreed; we need to distinguish composer's and listener's  
perspective.  It's certainly possible that composers proceed  
according to some sort of recursive procedure, but that this is not  
perceptible to listeners.  (In fact, if I wanted to defend  
Schenkerianism, this would probably be the path I took.)  On the  
other hand, it's also reasonable to feel that nonperceptible  
structure is less important aesthetically.

> Some very large scale-Schenkerian Ursätze may have become  
> perceptible for Schenker himself, but for many of us remain  
> inaccessible through mere auditory perception and must be  
> discovered through analysis. Once more, that does not mean that  
> they don't exist.

Agreed; it's possible that the ability to perceive recursive  
structures varies from individual to individual; this too is  
something to be investigated.  In language, this doesn't seem to be  
the case.  Almost everyone has difficulty with even small levels of  
center embedding, as in "people dogs cats like hate suck."

> I wouldn't recommend applying for a Nobel prize on such premises,  
> and I don't think the evolution of the species (or its survival) is  
> much concerned. To claim that large scale recursion cannot exist in  
> music because cognitivists were unable to evidence it seems to  
> me ... hum, let's remain polite ... to put excessive confidence in  
> cognitive science.

I'm interested in exploring connections between music and other  
fields.  Some of the issues we deal with are strikingly close to  
problems that arise elsewhere.  Sometimes we have things to teach  
people in other disciplines; sometimes they have things to teach us.   
I think that everyone will benefit if we try to integrate music  
theory into the broader scholarly community.


Dmitri Tymoczko
Associate Professor of Music
310 Woolworth Center
Princeton, NJ 08544-1007
(609) 258-4255 (ph), (609) 258-6793 (fax)

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