[Smt-talk] Passing and Neighboring 6/4s

Dmitri Tymoczko dmitri at princeton.edu
Mon Jan 18 18:02:42 PST 2010

Recently I was preparing to teach second-semester harmony, and found  
myself contemplating once more the idea of "passing" and "neighboring"  
6/4 chords.  And it suddenly occurred to me that these terms are  
potentially misleading.

My basic worry is that, in classical music, "neighboring" and  
"passing" 6/4s occur only in very specific circumstances (e.g. I- 
 >IV6/4->I or IV6->I6/4->ii6), whereas the terms "neighboring" and  
"passing" suggest more general contrapuntal functions that should in  
principle appear in a broader range of progressions (e.g. vi->ii6/4- 
 >vi or vi->iii6/4->vi6).

In other words, if the IV6/4 is really the byproduct of "neighboring"  
motion, then we should expect progressions like ii->V6/4->ii.  And  
conversely, the absence of ii->V6/4->ii should give us good reason to  
think that IV6/4 is not "simply a neighboring chord."  But then it's  
hard to understand what's gained by labeling IV6/4 as "neighboring."   
Are we really explaining anything, if we have to add the proviso that  
other neighboring 6/4 chords are almost never used in the style?

This is leading me to wonder whether I wouldn't be better off simply  
teaching a few specific tonal idioms, and leaving the labels  
"neighboring" and "passing" out altogether: I could just say that  
tonal composers often use I->IV6/4->I, V->I6/4->V and IV6->I6/4->ii6,  
and that would cover ~95% of the cases students encounter.

Does anyone have any thoughts about this?  When you teach  
"neighboring" and "passing" 6/4 chords, do you teach the specific  
idioms or general principles?  And if you do the latter, how do you  
prevent students from overgeneralizing to nonsyntactic progressions  
like vi->iii6/4->vi6 and so on?  And do you feel any tension between  
"this is just a neighboring chord" and "these other progressions,  
though contrapuntally quite similar to the acceptable case, are never  


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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