[Smt-talk] "Neighboring" 6/4 Chords

Dmitri Tymoczko dmitri at Princeton.EDU
Mon Oct 3 08:03:39 PDT 2011

> I almost agree with Dmitri that "it's better to get rid of the terms 'neighboring' and 'passing' chords."
> I almost agree in that I think the N 6/4 is misnamed. As David Headlam points out, the N 6/4 is an
> embellishing chord;

I know Donna wasn't directly meaning to engage my ideas, but I just wanted to clarify that I am motivated by a different view.  For me, the notion of embellishment plays no obvious, first-order role in explaining why certain 6/4 formations are used.

Here's a simple way to understand the point:

	1. Ask yourself which root progressions X-Y-X are common in ordinary tonal harmony, where Y is a fourth above X.

	2. Ask yourself which "neighboring 6/4 progressions" are common: A5/3->B6/4->A5/3, where A and B share the same bass.

The answer to question #1 is "I->IV->I and V->I->V".

The answer to question #2 is "I->IV6/4->I and V->I6/4->V."

I am struck by the similarity between the two answers, which I take to imply that the explanation for these common "neighboring 6/4" formations is harmonic rather than contrapuntal.  Roughly speaking: these 6/4 formations are common because the underlying progressions are themselves very common.  Certainly, it does not seem like the contrapuntal "neighboring" (or "embellishing") role over-rides the pre-existing harmonic constraints, otherwise we could expect progressions like ii->V6/4->ii.  These are vanishingly rare in the literature.

Now, I do think that terms like "embellishing chord" (along with their more specific cousins "passing" and "neighboring" chord) can play a role in our discourse around tonal harmony, but I think the issue is very subtle -- more subtle than we are inclined to believe.  I have managed to convince myself of the view -- surprising to some, I know -- that we don't really need these terms when explaining the basic harmonic grammar of common-practice music (that is, when explaining which progressions commonly occur and which don't).  I talk about this in Chapter 7 of my book.

Note that this doesn't go very far toward explaining Matt's original question, which is why I->V6/4->I is rare, when the underlying root progression is quite common.  So here I think you do want to point to the pedal bass, rather than stepwise "neighboring" bass, in progressions like I->IV6/4->I and V->I6/4->V.

I know that this seems like a return to an old-fashioned Rameau/Riemann/Piston point of view, and may seem unSchenkerian in its motivations.  But I do think that "the data" -- which is to say, what happens in actual musical pieces -- point pretty clearly in this direction.  Our textbooks and thinking have moved in a very Schenkerian direction, and there is room to move back toward traditional harmonic theory, while still retaining important insights from Schenker.


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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