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

Edward Klorman eklorman at juilliard.edu
Mon Oct 3 18:39:15 PDT 2011

Dear all,

I'm glad Deborah brought up the Op. 2/3 trio; I immediately thought of  
this example when reading Scott Murphy's message, which stated that:  
"Putting a bare V above a bass ^2, thus forming the 6/4, can be a  
clear and even potent signal that the music is modulating to the  
dominant" since (in major keys) a second-inversion dominant chord  
sounds like the cadential 6/4 of the dominant.

But the passing progression I  V 6/4 I6 is extremely common and  
idiomatic (as in the first three measures of the Op. 2/3 trio and many  
similar examples). Scott, do I understand correctly that your point is  
that adding a chordal seventh (thus I  V 4/3  I6) eliminates any  
ambiguity as to the function of the dominant chord?

To me, a stronger consideration than the presence or absence of a  
chordal seventh is the metrical placement of the chord in question. A  
passing 6/4 (like a passing tone) normatively is placed in a weaker  
position that the chords that flank it. In contrast, a cadential 6/4  
is placed in a metrically stronger position than the dominant to which  
it resolves.

As for Op. 2/3: there isn't any real ambiguity in this case, since  
it's in minor (meaning that a passing V 6/4 is an E major harmony,  
whereas the cadential 6/4 of the dominant key would be an E minor  
harmony). Nevertheless, even if it were changed to A major, the second  
measure is clearly a passing V 6/4 chord because of its weak  
hypermetrical position, passing between the tonic in m. 1 and the  
first-inversion tonic in m. 3

But, a propos Scott's point about modulating to the dominant, the 6/4  
chord in m. 6 is a cadential 6/4 chord in E minor, helping to  
establish a modulation to that key. This 6/4 harmony effects a subtle  
shift in the hypermeter. That is, the prevailing hypermeter  
establishes odd bars as strong, but the cadential 6/4 in m. 6  
establishes a two-bar span within which m. 6 is stronger than m. 7 (as  
per MPR 8, the suspension rule), which infers a quasi-hyperdownbeat  
status on the first ending.

This situation is very common in waltzes, where the final three  
measures of each strain are often V 6/4, V(7), and I -- such that the  
cadential 6/4 is in a weak position in the prevailing hypermeter, but  
it also effects a syncopated span within which the cadential 6/4 is  
stronger than the root-position dominant, and therefore places some  
some emphasis on the final measure. It seems to me that this must bear  
some relation with the traditional pre-cadential hemiola of the  
baroque and classical minuet, which similarly establishes a syncopated  
two-bar span, comprising the antepenultimate and penultimate measures.  
(The idea of a "syncopated time span" is discussed in Carl Schachter's  
article "Aspects of Meter"; see p. 93 on Unfoldings.)

Of course, none of this answers Matt's original query regarding why a  
second-inversion dominant appears commonly as a passing chord but  
rarely as an upper neighbor to I (with bass ^1-^2-^1) or, for that  
matter, as a lower neighbor to I6 (with bass ^3-^2-^3). My best  
instinct, which is not at all rigorous, would appeal to a the Gestalt  
principle of "good continuation" and to an idea of musical momentum or  
inertia. That is, a bass motion of ^1 to ^2 would most naturally  
continue on to ^3 (as in the passing progression I  V 6/4  I6). In  
contrast, in a neighbor progression such as I V 6/5 I, the bass goes  
from ^1 to ^7, but the strong pull from leading tone up to tonic  
forces the bass to change direction; the tendency-tone principle  
presents the bass from continuing downward. The same principle  
explains I6 V 4/2 I6 (with bass of ^3 ^4 ^3, where ^4 is pulled back  
to ^3 because it is a tendency tone). Perhaps the status of V 6/4 has  
to do with the neutral state of ^2, which is not a tendency tone and  
therefore has no particular pull either up to ^3 or down to ^1. Might  
this be a reason why the bass most normally passes through ^2 and  
continues in the same direction (as in I V6/4 I6 or the opposite, I6  
V6/4 I)?



Edward Klorman
The Juilliard School

Associate Chair and Director of Core Curriculum, L&M Department
Chair, Pre-College Theory Department

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