[Smt-talk] Addendum on Bach

Richard Hermann harhar at unm.edu
Fri Jan 22 12:09:22 PST 2010

Dear SMT-Listers,

Around 30 years ago Robert Cogan made an interesting comment on  
"Common-Practice" music in that by that yardstick, common-practice  
would be better applied to modal music as it has been around a lot  
longer. Why should "norms" of one period trump those of other periods/ 
practices? On what specific grounds should one specific period/ 
practice be made paramount?  As the king of siam said in a musical  
along time ago: "etcetera, etcetera, etcetera...."


Richard Hermann, Prof. of Music
University of New Mexico

On Jan 22, 2010, at 12:58 PM, Dmitri Tymoczko wrote:

> 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 things.
> 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.
> DT
> Dmitri Tymoczko
> Associate Professor of Music
> 310 Woolworth Center
> Princeton, NJ 08544-1007
> (609) 258-4255 (ph), (609) 258-6793 (fax)
> http://music.princeton.edu/~dmitri
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