[Smt-talk] BELGIAN +6

Dmitri Tymoczko dmitri at princeton.edu
Wed Nov 23 06:36:18 PST 2011

Ildar notes that 19th-century composers didn't use our standard names for augmented sixth chords, but I don't see this as a problem -- a name is just a name, and we are perfectly free to give whatever names we want to these chords.  Yes, they're cute and colorful, and yes, they have very little to do with the actual countries involved, but as long as everyone understands this, it's not a big problem.  (Besides I like making the joke that the Italian involves just tomato, basil, and mozzarella, the French clearly involves a complex sauce that simmered for hours, and the German is heavier than the Italian, with sausage and dark bread ...)  We have a long way to go before we compete with the physicists on the silly-name front ("quark," which is the sound of a raven, as filtered through Finnegan's Wake).

On Nov 22, 2011, at 8:48 PM, Ildar Khannanov wrote:

> For all the great composers and musicians of the 19th century, the chords with the augmented sixth had very important meaning. They all were the modifications of the simpler chords and, together with them, they belonged to the Subdominant function. 

This is actually not clear to me.  In my book, I suggest that one obvious way of testing this view is by looking at places where augmented sixths substitute for other chords -- for instance, sequences, variation movements, or sonata-form passages where the same music occurs in both major and minor.  In the vast majority of cases, augmented sixths replace applied dominant chords: for example, V/V in a major exposition becomes a German sixth in a minor recapitulation.  There are very, very few cases (in fact, almost none!) where an augmented sixth substitutes for a pure subdominant or predominant function.  My conclusion is that the augmented sixth has the function of a V/V chord -- which means it is a kind of altered dominant.

This view helps explain how the augmented-sixth type chords eventually come to act as primary dominants of I, in the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, etc.  It's a simple matter of taking a chord that used to act as the dominant of the dominant, and allowing it to act as the dominant of the tonic.  By contrast, the view that these chords are subdominants has the unhappy consequence that we need to postulate an entirely new chord, the "flat five dominant" of I, which just happens (coincidentally!) to relate to the "augmented sixth" in a systematic way.  It's much simpler to say they're just the same basic chord.


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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