[Smt-talk] Subdominants and Secondary Dominants

Dmitri Tymoczko dmitri at Princeton.EDU
Wed Nov 30 09:37:49 PST 2011

Hi Everyone,

Some off-list conversations helped me clarify my thinking about the question of "subdominant and secondary dominant" functions, and I thought it would be worth sharing them.

Let's start with a simple example: in C major, consider the progression

1. (C, G, C, E)->(C#, G, Bb, E)->(D, F, A, D)  or C: I->viio7/ii->ii 

The first chord is clearly tonic functioned, while the second is (in my thinking) viio7/ii. These are very different chords.  I doubt that anyone would say that I and viio7/ii are the same function or "basically similar" or anything of the sort.

Now imagine this same progression in G major, with F# in the last chord.  This is a very similar contrapuntal/harmonic schema, only now taking IV to viio7/V.  

2. (C, G, C, E)->(C#, G, Bb, E)->(D, F#, A, D)  or G: IV->viio7/V->V 

As someone interested in grammar and composer's syntax, I want to emphasize the analogy between the two cases: you have basically the same musical pattern appearing on two different scale degrees.  A diatonic chord becomes the applied dominant of the chord a step above.  It is important to me to register this.  It seems reasonable to say that they exemplify the same underlying syntactic principle: "any common ascending-step diatonic progression can be embellished by inserting an applied dominant before the second chord."

But of course someone more interested in perception might want to say: "look, I and viio7/ii are more different than IV and viio7/IV."  This is perfectly reasonable, and I admit the perceptual point.  IV and viio7/IV are more similar perceptually than I and viio7/ii; and even on a syntactical level it is more common to replace IV with viio7/V than I with viio7/ii.  That said, however, I have no doubt that there are other people who, like me, are very alive to the difference between IV and viio7/IV, and experience the chords as being different.

The main point I want to make is that there's a divergence between two very different aims: describing a kind of listener phenomenology (where some but not all listeners report IV and viio7/V as being more similar than I and viio7/ii), and describing a kind of composer grammar (where we might want to emphasize the similarity among the patterns 1 and 2 above).  They're really quite different projects.

I myself am more interested in the composer-side, grammatical/syntactical project, but I have no beef with the more phenomenological alternative.  What surprises me is how different the projects are, and how commonly one finds misunderstandings where disagreements revolve around differences in underlying aims.


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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