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

Ildar Khannanov solfeggio7 at yahoo.com
Thu Jan 21 18:36:33 PST 2010

Dear Dmitri and Olli,
Since I am one of the “persons on the list talking about general principles,” I find your use of terms and principles not clearly defined. What do you mean by syntax? Does “embellishment of a chord with the neighboring 6/4” constitute a syntactic structure?
Imagine: a dog, a tree and a bus, three objects are lined up from left to right. It may look like the tree embellishes the dog and, therefore, all three objects create a syntactic structure. In fact, they do not. Mere adjacency of objects unrelated to each other functionally does not constitute syntax. However, if the dog started barking at the tree, the bus driver was distracted by that and crushed the bus into the tree, the tree trunk bended but did not break, then you have gotten yourself a syntactic structure. Now all three elements interact with each other. They are related functionally.
If you decided to use the terms of semiotics, such as syntax, you would probably want to define them more clearly and place them in the context of other terms. Every word of a natural language has three essential characteristics: function, form and meaning. The first constitutes syntax, the second -- morphology, and the last but not the least – semantics. The syntax of any complete sentence is constituted by subject, predicate and object. If you wish to compare this with music, the tonal-harmonic functions comprise musical syntax, voice-leading constitutes morphology (after all, words are connected one to another by means of prepositions, suffixes and endings), and musical content provides the material for semantics.
In this sense, I insist that prolongation is not a syntactic structure. Adjacency is too weak, too passive to move large-scale structure of music along. It is necessary as morphological feature. However, what moves music ahead, what makes musical form not a crystal but a dynamic process, is not prolongation, but the energy or tension and relaxation, the product of tonal-harmonic function.
Phenomenology is negation (deconstruction) of psychology.  However, even in your naïve use, the psychology/phenomenology remains an inseparable part of musical structure. It is futile to attempt theorizing on music in isolation from psychology, linguistics, and philosophy. Music is created by humans for humans. It is essentially psychological, historical, philosophical and semiotic. Otherwise you will be operating on a corpse and analyzing rock formations.
Theory cannot be reduced to simple statistic analysis. Theory operates with categories and concepts, many of which are intangible. It requires reflection and ability to formulate a priori definitions. You will never be able to come up with a theoretical concept by just counting the occurrences of a single progression in various musical works.
Best wishes,
Ildar Khannanov
Peabody Conservatory
solfeggio7 at yahoo.com

--- On Wed, 1/20/10, Olli Väisälä <ovaisala at siba.fi> wrote:

From: Olli Väisälä <ovaisala at siba.fi>
Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] Passing and Neighboring 6/4s
To: "Dmitri Tymoczko" <dmitri at Princeton.EDU>
Cc: "smt-talk smt" <smt-talk at societymusictheory.org>
Date: Wednesday, January 20, 2010, 3:56 AM

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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