[Smt-talk] Music theory on Wikipedia

Dmitri Tymoczko dmitri at princeton.edu
Fri Jul 15 10:26:19 PDT 2011

On Jul 15, 2011, at 11:03 AM, Michael Gogins wrote:

> So, I think one of the most substantial contributions scholars can make to the Wikipedia is to really tighten up the exposition of fundamental concepts so that they are both accessible to beginners and unambiguous and rigorous enough for technical use. An example that might benefit from this treatment in music theory on the Wikipedia is "prolongation." 

I don't mean to be flippant, but that's a pretty tall order!  I've always thought that the notion of "prolongation" is freighted with really serious philosophical complications.  Anyone who could remove these complications, and come up with a non-circular definition of "prolongation," would be doing the field a great service ...


I've actually been thinking about this issue off and on for years.  My current best guess is that "prolongation" is an intentional, rather than a grammatical concept: to say "X prolongs Y" is (roughly speaking) to make an intentional claim about how the composer used X as a means of getting to (or doing) Y.  This contrasts with the formal or grammatical or descriptive concepts (e.g. "V7 chord") familiar from other regions of musical discourse.

As a loose but maybe-helpful analogy: imagine watching two people playing chess.  One picks up a horse-shaped figure, moving it two spaces forward and one space to the left.  A child asks, "why did he move the piece like that?"

Now consider various answers:

	1) "Because the rules of chess require that the horse-shaped figure moves two spaces in one direction and one space in another." (Formal, grammatical)
	2) "Because he wanted to control the center spaces of the board." (Intentional)

In my view, the concepts of Roman-numeral analysis are more like (1), whereas the notion of prolongation is more like (2).  Understanding this, I think, helps explain how the two modes of discourse can both be true, and not contradict each other.


Interestingly, my digression couldn't be included in a Wikipedia article, since it hasn't been published anywhere.  (Wikipedia has strict standards about avoiding "original" or "unpublished" research.)  But nor could Wikipedia include a simple, uncontroversial summary of what "prolongation" means, because we in the field don't really agree about the issue at all.  So about the best you could hope for is a survey of the various proposals that have been made, one that gets updated as the discussion proceeds.

In a way, the notion of "prolongation" is almost a uniquely good example for confronting the challenges of getting music theory onto Wikipedia.


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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