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

Dmitri Tymoczko dmitri at Princeton.EDU
Tue Jan 19 16:54:13 PST 2010

A number of you have made the sensible-sounding suggestion that we  
should teach both specific idioms and general principles.  I agree  
with the general sentiment.

The problem, in this specific instance, is that when you look  
carefully at classical music, you find shockingly few varieties of  
"passing" and "neighboring" 6/4 chords.  There are only two common  
kinds of "neighboring 6/4 chords", to wit I->IV6/4->I and V->I6/4->V,  
and basically just one common variety of "passing 6/4," namely IV6- 
 >I6/4->[IV or ii6 or ii6/5].

So the idea that there is some complicated practice which can be  
subsumed into a single unifying framework -- that of "passing" or  
"neighboring" 6/4 chords -- is not really backed up by this music.   
There are precisely three idiomatic non-cadential 6/4 progressions,  
and together these account for the vast majority of examples that  
students are going to encounter.  The concepts "neighboring" and  
"passing 6/4" allow you to knock these three idioms down to two  
categories, but at the expense of forcing you to explain to your  
students that a vast number of the newly-sanctioned theoretical  
possibilities (ii-V6/4-ii, etc.) don't ever occur in the literature.   
In this sense, I think the cost of the proposed "general principles"  
might be greater than the benefit.

Let me also point out a couple of deeper philosophical issues raised  
by this very interesting discussion:

1. Ultimately, we're asking whether we should account for this piece  
of tonal harmony using general "grammatical laws" or particular idiom- 
like "schemas" -- an issue that is close to Robert Gjerdingen's  
heart.  I am not willing to follow Bob down the dusty road of  
dismissing harmonic theory altogether, but I think it's interesting to  
ask whether noncadential 6/4 chords might call for a schematic, rather  
than rule-based description.

2. For this discussion to get anywhere, it is necessary that we  
rigorously distinguish phenomenology from syntax.  It's reasonable to  
say: "The I-IV6/4-I progression gives me a neighboring feeling."  I  
have no quarrel with that psychological statement, though I do not  
share it.  It is another thing to say: "The I-IV6/4-I progression  
results from a more general contrapuntal process, namely neighboring  
motion; this contrapuntal process licenses a chord progressions that  
are not accounted for by standard harmonic rules."  This claim is  
false: the *only* common sorts of "neighboring 6/4" progressions are  
those that conform to familiar harmonic principles -- that is, there  
are no common "neighboring 6/4" progressions that can't also appear in  
root position.
	Personally, I think a lot of music-theoretical confusion results from  
the failure to distinguish psychology from syntax; they're very  
different enterprises.  When people on the list talk about "general  
principles," I suspect they're talking about the psychological level  
-- they're saying "the IV in IV6/4 feels neighboring to me."  They are  
not talking about a general syntactical principle like "in general a  
chord can be embellished by neighboring motion," because that general  
principle is manifestly inaccurate.


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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