[Smt-talk] Typical versus less typical chord arrangements

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Tue Feb 14 10:11:07 PST 2012

Dear Dmitri,

Thank you for your thoughtful input on the usage of functional arrangements in the common practice period. 

>From the references you have made in there, it seems as if the so-called "common practice period" begins with Bach and ends with Beethoven. I regret to realize that you believe in that.
Have you looked in Romantic scores? Late Romanticism? Russian Music of the I 19th century? Simple popular music of the XX century, stemming from the classic-romantic tradition? Film scores, some of which are conservative enough to exhibit "music in a common style" with simple tertian progressions and clear tonal centers.

If you have, you will have discovered not only the chord connections I suggested, but much more, including an ample modal mixture, diverse modulations. etc.

If Mozart has not used a minor subdominant in major, does it mean that we should not use it? Should we forget about Schumann, Schubert, and many other romantics? Also, the plagal cadences such as IV-I, II6-I or II6/5 - are explored in Russian music. (an Amen progression of the type IV-II half-dim. 6/5 - I, should not be extremely rare, and creates a wonderful effect).

It is a shame that, more than 100 years after Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his book of harmony, American students (and also some teachers) do not know what harmonic and melodic major are. Rimsky wrote in the introduction: "I based my book on four modes: natural and harmonic major, and natural and harmonic minor". Since the term "harmonic major", not to speak of "melodic major", is obviously not in your database, you do not teach it. This leads me to comment on two sad circumstances which are widely spread in American colleges today. Students are told int their theory classes that there is one major scale, and there are three minor scales. Fortunately, neither the former is true, nor the latter. In fact, when we consider the period that I suggested, six basic scales are used (sometimes only melodically, at other times implied by the harmony, or used in both ways): natural, harmonic, and melodic major, and natural, harmonic and melodic minor. The major scales are less frequently used, but this is not a reason to behave as if they do not exist. They are not some "exotic" or "bizarre" addition to the common practice period; they must be studied in theory I along with the minor scales. I do not have specific observations on the double harmonic versions of these scales, but I suspect Liszt may have used some in his rhapsodies. The double harmonic versions may be considered as scales influenced by folk music. As for harmonic major, the first thing that came up to mind my mind is the beginning of the second theme of Beethoven's first piano sonata in Fm. The implied scale is Ab harmonic major. Of course, classical composers did not explore those scale so much as romantic composers.

Fortunately, I do not teach music with a folder under my arm, ready to endorse or reject a progression according to a database. It is namely such kind of experience that "molds the students away" from creativity. If a student asks me, "May I connect II6 to I in a plagal relationship" I will not open that folder and say, "No, you may not; Bach and the Classical composers have not used that". That would be the end of creative music theory teaching. Theory must be creative, not too scholastic. I would encourage the student to use that progression with the comments that it much more rare than an authentic resolution, for example.

In some Russian books of harmony (Mutli, Myassoadov, and others) they have a whole chapter with melodies for harmonizations, entitled: plagal cadences or "alterations in the subdominant harmony". To explore the plagal resolutions.

Nobody could be a judge of what is typical and what is not. Even a database. We do observe some norms, but as long as the progression makes sense and the voice leading is good, I will praise the student, and even suggest that this is his/her style. Only if they go over the board with too many modal or chromatic harmonies in a classical style chorale, I would suggest changes. 

I think that it is very good to say "I like this progression. Let us use it!" without consulting a database. As long as our sense of style is intact, we do not have to flip through thousands of pages to receive an approval for every  progression that we want to use. This will simply kill the creative spirit in everyone of us - teachers and students.

Am I a widely known composer and music theorist? No. At least for now (ha-ha). Should I wait to become famous to promote my ideas? I would not respect myself enough if I did that. On the contrary, I will run away from such kind of behavior, as a prisoner would run from the prison. 

All that a good teacher needs to have is talent, professionalism, and common sense. One more thing: love for his students. Our greatest achievement will consist in teaching students how to think critically (Look at every definition with a certain amount of suspicion!), how to inquire, and be creative. Unless they become some specialists in music, they will forget how to connect chords. But the spirit of creativity and critical thinking will remain in their hearts forever.

If composers/theorists taught music from a database, the vocabulary of chord connection possibilities would be very limited, and different styles would not flourish. Of course, it is beneficial if a composer is also a theorist, but it is never beneficial if a theorist is not a music maker of any kind. Schoenberg refers to such pure theorists with the sarcastic "No masters" label. 

But this is not all. When I teach modal mixture, I tell my students that all chords from major could be transferred into minor (that is true - even the "high or raised mediants") and vice versa. We compose chorales by including many borrowed chords and students love that. With this, of course, we go beyond the common practice period, we touch Prokofiev, even John Williams (I call some progressions "Harry Potter"). Our task is not only to teach students to copy, but also to create, and even to imagine that they are pioneers of some new ideas. In addition, modal mixture cannot be studied comprehensively without exploring some innovations of the XX century.

About Kostka/Payne. I also use this book in our school, but discussing its merits versus shortcomings is too long a topic for this current discussion. It is enough to begin by saying that they do not have a special chapter on harmonic functionality and on how different functions relate to the tonal center. No major scales; no explanation of strict versus free resolution of dominant seventh chord; no chapter on altered chords - what are genuinely altered and what are relatively altered chords; no secondary subdominants (students do not know what this is!); geographic names for harmonic functions; no extensive exercises in harmonization; very limited exploration of modal mixture; a strange manner of presenting the non-chord tones, including a twisted notion of the appoggiatura (in fact, the appoggiatura is not about melodic contour, but about a moment of entrance and the necessity for resolution; in this sense it may be passing, neighboring or leaping, and needs to resolve as a suspension - this is why Germans call it "free suspension"); and many more things that could probably fill in pages of discussion and scrutiny.

In fact, I feel happy that I have the freedom to share with mys students what others would consider "less typical" or exceptional. I am convinced that, as long as students master the principles of voice leading well (here we may argue too), they must be allowed to experiment  without consulting a database or without fearing anybody's frowning.

Best regards,


Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
School of Music
Texas State University
601 University Drive
San Marcos, Texas 78666

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