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

Olli Väisälä ovaisala at siba.fi
Wed Jan 20 01:56:22 PST 2010

> 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.

Two comments:

1. I agree that  I–IV6/4–I and I–IV–I are not far from each other  
(either phenomenologically or syntactically). So do Aldwell and  
Schachter, for that matter, as is made very explicit in their  
discussion of the theme of Brahms's Haydn variations (p. 309). The  
point of calling IV6/4 neighboring is not to distinguish it from root- 
position IV; both can be called neighboring when they support 3^–4^– 
3^ and 5^–6^–5^ upper-voice patterns.
I do not think that it is necessary to appeal to phenomenology or  
"feelings" for describing the sense of "neighboring" here; rather,  
this label indicates (1) that these progressions are  
characteristically/normatively used for harmonizing the above- 
mentined upper-voice patterns and (2) they do not have independent  
harmonic significance in the manner of I–V–I (tonal phrases can be  
based on I–V–I but not on I–IV–I, clearly a syntactic feature). To  
what extent (1) is substantiated by explicit compositional features  
in music by different composers is, of course, a legitimate and  
interesting empirical question.

2. A more general question: Are you sure, Dmitri, that you make a  
sufficient distinction between syntax and frequency of occurrence?  
Consider language. There is an infinite number of syntactically  
correct sentences that are never used (like "The river is eating  
English."). There are also syntactically correct sentences that are  
used in a certain style but not in another ("This f*cking f*ck won't  
f*ck.") Similarly, there might be syntactically correct chord  
progressions that never occur in a certain repertoire of music. In  
fact, I am not at all convinced that your ii–V6/4–ii example is non- 
syntactic. Consider for example (/ = bar line):

vi  / ii–V6/4–ii / cad. 6/4–V / I, with upper voice 3^ / 4^–5^–4^ /  
3^–2^ / 1^

I do not think the second measure breaks the limits of tonal syntax  
here. Although I don't have any real example in mind, I could well  
imagine a tonal idiom in which this progression is used for some  
expressive purpose, even though Mozart and several others had no use  
for it.

Hence the syntactical principle you mention above might be correct  
after all, but we simply need more than syntax (or this aspect of  
syntax) for explaining actual usages and their frequencies.

(Of course, these additional aspects are largely different in  
language and music, since semantics plays a much stronger role in the  
former, but I will not pursue this interesting question here.)

Olli Väisälä
Sibelius Academy
ovaisala at siba.fi
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