[Smt-talk] Addendum on Bach

Dmitri Tymoczko dmitri at princeton.edu
Fri Jan 22 11:58:31 PST 2010

On Jan 22, 2010, at 11:46 AM, Steven Rosenhaus wrote:

> I have found that while following rules can make for some exquisite  
> music, it can also result in G*d-awfully boring stuff. When I teach  
> the craft of composition I make sure the students understand that  
> what they are learning are not hard and fast "rules" but practices,  
> and that learning them is like knowing where the walls are in an  
> unlit room; much easier to push/break down those walls (or just find  
> the light switch and/or door, to further the metaphor) if you know  
> where those walls are.

While Stephen Jablonsky wrote:

> Using the words "normal" or "usual" when referring to the output of  
> great composers is quite amusing. It is only the second rate  
> composers who stick to the predictable or the probable.

Two points:

1) It is important to distinguish the project of defining a harmonic  
grammar from that of doing analysis.  The activities are as different  
as linguistics and literary criticism.  Great authors play with  
grammatical rules, but this doesn't show that grammatical rules don't  
exist, or aren't important.
	The problem here is that music theory comprises many different  
activities -- analogues to linguistics, psychology, literary  
criticism, etc.  What defines our field is the subject matter, not the  
style of thinking.  So when someone like me starts talking about  
grammar, others are always going to talk about how irrelevant that is  
to what they do.  This is a reminder that we all do very different  

2) Interestingly (or perhaps predictably) enough, I've always been  
surprised by how *infrequently* great composers violate some of the  
musical conventions that defined their style.  In this respect, I  
think, they were very different from contemporary artists, weaned on  
modernism and the violation of norms.

For instance, there are very, very few clear root position V-IV  
progressions in the music -- despite the fact that this progression  
sounds good.  Likewise, there are hardly any sonata-form movements in  
major with the second theme in the relative minor, or in the  
supertonic.  (Yes, I know a few.)  Or pieces in Lydian.  Or parallel  
fifths.  Or pieces in 5/4.  Really, the list could go on and on.

In large part, I think this is because these composers did not think  
of  the principles of their musical style as being arbitrary and  
conventional, but rather as being rooted in something much deeper.  In  
this respect I would think that theory played a huge role in defining  
for them the limits of the acceptable.

When I imagine myself projected back in time, and composing in the  
18th- or 19th-century style, I always imagine exploring all these  
relatively obvious alternatives.  And I always tell my students:  
"these composers were very different from us.  The things we think of  
as natural, like mixolydian mode or VI-VII-i or V-IV-I progressions,  
were not at all natural to them."  I think it is very hard to  
understand how they distinguished between norms that were not to be  
trifled with, and norms that could be violated.

The great classical composers were, of course, very inventive.  They  
broke rules.  But it's equally important that they preserved rules and  
didn't even think about breaking with them.  This is how some of the  
conventions survived for so long.


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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