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

Dmitri Tymoczko dmitri at Princeton.EDU
Sun Apr 12 11:31:28 PDT 2009

On Apr 12, 2009, at 1:57 PM, art samplaski wrote:

> 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.:)

Let me clarify: I'm not trying to say that ordinary listeners can  
*never* perceive any dominant chords.  I absolutely agree that they  
can do it sometimes.  I also agree that various kinds of chords --  
including 0167 -- can act as dominants.  The question is whether  
these facts justify the assumption of complete transparency between  
composer and listener.  I say "no."

Fred's book assumes that listeners have access to something like the  
mental equivalent of the full musical score, and I believe this is  
not very plausible.

The question of how much information loss there is in musical  
perception is a complex one.  I honestly don't know how much of it  
there is, but I suspect there's a lot -- play an ordinary listener a  
10-second excerpt from a 4-voice Bach fugue, and ask them to sing  
back the bass line.  Chances are, they're not going to do very well.   
Do the same with a Coltrane solo, and the results will not be very  
different.  Play them a modulating passage and ask whether it ended  
up in the same key it began; chances are they won't be very accurate  
at determining the answer.

I could be wrong -- maybe, deep in our brains, we're perceiving music  
very accurately.  But I'd prefer to see this as the outcome of some  
careful, controlled experiments rather than as an assertion.


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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