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

Dmitri Tymoczko dmitri at Princeton.EDU
Thu Jan 21 18:41:28 PST 2010

On Jan 20, 2010, at 12:29 AM, Richard Porterfield wrote:

> As important as it is to know what's common (and your findings are  
> illuminating), it's also important to recognize that what falls  
> outside the bounds of the usual is not necessarily abnormal,  
> perverted, or wrong. As with left-handedness or sexual orientation,  
> recognizing only the majority denies the contribution of the  
> minority thus rendered invisible.

Olli is raises a similar point in a less dramatic fashion.

> 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.

These are good questions that touch on deep and difficult issues.  I  
briefly address them in "Root Motion, Function, Scale  
Degree." (Available at: http://music.princeton.edu/~dmitri/tonaltheories.pdf)

There are basically two things to say:

1) In tonal music, unlike language, there is no sharp distinction  
between "uncommon" and "nonsyntactical."  If you look carefully, you  
can find almost anything in tonal music: parallel fifths, root- 
position V-IV, weird progressions like I-IV/IV-IV-V-I, and so on.   
Virtually everything happens somewhere, at least once.  Unlike  
language, weird musical stuff rarely sounds "incomprehensible" or  
"senseless" -- particularly to twenty-first century ears, accustomed  
to Varese or Cage.  Instead, it just sound atypical.
	If you were to try to detail every possible thing that ever happened  
in the baroque/classical/romantic style, your book would be tens of  
thousands of pages long.  So, if you want to teach the style, you have  
to impose some sort of cutoff -- you say, "I'm going to describe what  
frequently happens, while leaving some of the weird stuff out."   
Everybody does this to some extent, it's just a question of where you  
draw the line.  (In my view, current textbooks are too quick to  
discuss each and every possible exception, which is why they're  
unreadably long; as a teacher, I'd much prefer a short 180-page book  
that captured 98% of what actually happens, to a 600-page book that  
gets 99%.)  What's amazing is that a relatively small number of  
principles can account for a very large range of music -- something  
like 95-98%.  That's good enough for me, particularly where  
introductory classes are concerned.
	The upshot is that I don't draw a particular distinction between  
"very infrequent" and "nonsyntactical."  Nor do I attach any moral  
connotations to the term "syntax" -- you're not a bad person if you  
write root-position V-IV progressions; you're just not writing like  
Mozart.  Now it would be logically coherent to propose that there  
exists a normative level of syntax which is distinct from statistical  
frequency: you could say "Mozart and his contemporaries believed that  
V-IV progressions were evil and never used them; however, they  
believed that I-iii-V progressions were perfectly moral and good, but  
Mozart never used them -- for purely contingent reasons."  I don't  
like this theory because it is untestable and because it puts too much  
weight on what these previous composers thought; but it is not  
incoherent.  Similarly, one could believe that the principles of tonal  
harmony are universal natural laws, inherent in the structure of  
things and applying to all composers at all times, rather than being  
somewhat arbitrary cultural conventions.  Again, I disagree, but the  
view is not incoherent.
	These alternative views might lead you to believe that Aldwell and  
Schachter had the ability to directly intuit the "proper"  
progressions, and that this quality of "propriety" was distinct from  
statistical frequency.  (Schenker sometimes spoke as if something like  
this were true.)  That strikes me as a bit too mystical for twenty- 
first century pedagogical purposes: my students are much happier with  
statements like "if you want to sound like Mozart do this sort of  
thing; if you want to sound like Debussy, do this instead ..."  And  
note that even if you believe in natural, universal tonal laws, there  
is still an important difference between what sorts of progressions  
Mozart frequently used and what sorts of progressions Brahms  
frequently used.  These differences are an important marker of the  
difference in sound between composers.

2. Having said all that, I should report that my linguist friends tell  
me that many contemporary linguists view language in much the same way  
as I view music.  They argue that, despite appearances, the  
distinction "syntactical/nonsyntactical" turns out to be a matter of  
statistical frequency, even in natural language.  This is apparently a  
hot topic of contemporary debate.  I don't know much more about the  
issue, but it's worth pointing out that the nature of linguistic  
"syntax" is by no means a settled matter.


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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