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

Brent Yorgason brent.yorgason at marietta.edu
Tue Jan 19 09:53:06 PST 2010

Dmitri, I agree with you that we shouldn't teach these concepts as though
they apply equally to any situation, and we absolutely should highlight the
most typical instances of these rather than setting them up as generalities.
I do like using the term "neighboring" when I want to emphasize the
embellishing nature of the 6/4 chord. The roman numerals by themselves do
not communicate this relationship. But if my students can clearly identify
which chords are structural and which are embellishing, I actually don't
care if they label them as "neighboring" or not.   

I have noticed a few other problems with the term "neighboring 6/4." For
example, depending on the voice-leading, a I-IV64-I progression may not
actually have neighboring motion in the upper voices. Maybe this is why the
alternate term "pedal 6/4" has developed, which focuses on the static bass
rather than the motion of the upper voices. I sometimes find myself
switching between these two perspectives, which I am sure confuses some of
my students. 

There are also cases where it is difficult to choose between a "neighboring"
6/4 and a "cadential" 6/4; say, in a V-I6/4-V-I6/4-V progression. Where does
one end and the other begin? 

Again, I don't think the labeling of 6/4 chords is an end in itself, but a
way to get students thinking about what 6/4 chords are used for and what
they should and should not be doing with 6/4 chords in their own writing.
And I find that if I don't give them some 6/4 restrictions, they will be
using 6/4 chords almost all the time for no sensible reason. 


Brent Yorgason
Assistant Professor of Music Theory
Marietta College
Managing Editor, Music Theory Online
brent.yorgason at marietta.edu

-----Original Message-----
From: smt-talk-bounces at societymusictheory.org
[mailto:smt-talk-bounces at societymusictheory.org] On Behalf Of Dmitri
Sent: Monday, January 18, 2010 9:03 PM
To: smt-talk smt
Subject: [Smt-talk] Passing and Neighboring 6/4s

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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