[Smt-talk] Addendum on Bach

Dmitri Tymoczko dmitri at princeton.edu
Fri Jan 22 09:08:39 PST 2010

On Jan 22, 2010, at 10:47 AM, Paul Siskind wrote:

> It seems to me that the recent discussion about the use
> of 6/4 chords (and the way that we wish to conceive/describe/teach  
> them)
> has sidestepped an important consideration (which Dr. Tymoczko hints  
> at in
> the above statement).

By the way, I prefer it when people call me "Dmitri" -- particularly  
if you try to spell it correctly!  My view is that we're all  
colleagues, and that we're all searching for the same thing (musical  
understanding), and that even if I haven't met you yet, I probably  
will at some point.

> Sometimes a composer will write a phrase that follows the normative
> stylistic syntax of the genre/style/era, because following the  
> expected
> syntax makes a particular type of artistic statement.  At other times,
> however, the same composer might decide to write a phrase that
> avoids/contradicts/subverts the expected normative syntax, because  
> doing
> so creates a different type of artistic statement (i.e. a sense of
> tension, surprise, etc.).

Absolutely -- just as a poet might use deliberately agrammatical  
language.  Mozart's occasional use of I->IV/IV->IV progressions  
strikes me as just this.

However, there is an important question: is a particular chord  
progression a deliberate violation of syntax, or is it just part of a  
composer's vocabulary?  This can be very hard to answer.  In the case  
of Bach, there are a reasonable number of V->iii and vi->iii  
progressions, and they don't seem to occur in any systematic ways.   
(For instance, they do not harmonize poignant words like "broken" or  
"fallen" or what have you.)  So this pushes me toward thinking it's  
just part of his vocabulary.

> Thus, it seems to me that a statement like "It's also important to
> remember that Bach chorales have a lot of genuinely weird stuff in  
> them,
> stuff you don't find in Mozart or elsewhere" misses the mark, and  
> distorts
> the perspective of what we're trying to understand/describe/teach  
> about
> the evolution of musical styles.  Musical style did not evolve
> teleologically toward the "pinnacles" of Bach, Mozart, Wagner,  
> Schoenberg,
> or any other particular composer.  Sometimes we anoint a particular
> composer "great" because of the clarity and elegance with which they  
> apply
> a stylistic syntax; but sometimes we anoint a particular composer as
> "great" precisely because they are radical and broke away from the
> prevalent style/syntax of their time.

I'm not sure I meant to imply anything different.  By "weird" I didn't  
mean "bad," I just meant "unusual."  And I didn't mean to imply any  
sort of teleology.  I was just just saying there are progressions that  
happen reasonably frequently in Bach, but much less frequently in  
Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.  Again, this is why Gauldin (author of  
another prominent harmony textbook!) says that Bach is not a tonal  

> In similar manner, an approach such as "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"" likewise misses the mark.  Yes, in order to understand/ 
> describe the
> difference between normative and unusual usage within a syntax, we  
> must
> decide upon some kind of boundary.  However, simply dismissing "the  
> weird
> stuff" because it doesn't follow the normative syntax (wherever you've
> drawn the cutoff line) imposes an unwarranted teleology.  Perhaps the
> "weird" progression wasn't considered weird in the earlier style,  
> and only
> became weird after stylistic tastes had changed.  Perhaps the composer
> specifically wanted a "weird" progression at that moment in that
> particular piece for a specific artistic effect.  Perhaps later  
> composers
> were not allowed to use similar "weird" chord progressions because of
> social strictures, dicta imposed by patrons, economic market  
> pressures,
> etc.  Simply dismissing "the weird stuff" ignores all of these  
> important
> (and interesting) ways of understanding musical style in full context.

I don't mean to dismiss the unusual stuff.  What I do is try to teach  
the core syntax to my introductory students -- the progressions that  
are shared by a large number of composers.  When I teach a more  
advanced course on Bach, we go into the particularities of his  
vocabulary -- e.g. the use of the III+6 chord as a minor-mode dominant  
in the chorales, the V-iii, vi-iii-IV, and ii-vi progressions, etc.

Here's the problem as I see it.  There is a "core syntax" shared by  
many different composers.  This core syntax is pretty easy to describe  
-- you don't need fancy notions like "passing 6/4" you just need to  
teach a few idioms.  You can explain the core syntax in about 50 pages  
of text.  The core syntax covers about 95-98% of what happens in Bach  
and Mozart -- and I believe in many other composers as well.

However, most harmony books do not focus on the "core syntax."  They  
take 500+ pages detailing each and every thing that happens in tonal  
harmony.  Two problems result: 1) they do not do a great job at  
distinguishing the unusual from the usual; and 2) they do not do a  
great job of distinguishing the particularities of different  
composers' styles.

The pedagogical/theoretical question I'm asking is the following.   
Take the 2-5% of stuff that is not covered by the core syntax.  Can we  
describe this in a universal way, without making reference to  
individual styles?  Or is that 2-5% largely a matter of personal or  
regional or temporal preference -- a matter of, say, Bach's fondness  
for iii, or (perhaps) Schumann's fondness for common-tone diminished  
seventh chords?

If I'm right, and the unusual stuff is more personal, then this  
suggests a different pedagogical strategy: focusing on a simplified  
"core syntax" as an introductory matter, and then branching out later  
to look at particular composers and styles, noting how each completes  
the core syntax in his or her own way.

Note that the underlying issue here is the question of whether tonal  
syntax is -- as many have thought --  a unified language, or whether  
it is a bunch of dialects.  I suspect that we could learn something by  
considering it a "collection of dialects."  But this doesn't mean that  
I denigrate dialects.  That ain't what I'm saying at all.


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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