[Smt-talk] Subdominant versus Predominant

Benjamin Williams benjamin at williamscomposer.com
Fri Feb 24 09:46:14 PST 2012

Dear Dimitar,

For what it's worth, David Tomasacci and I presented a paper on the 
value of using both labels—"Distinguishing Predominant and Subdominant 
Behavior in Functional Analysis" (2010)—that I have made available online:



Dr. Benjamin Williams
Assistant Professor of Music
Mississippi College
benwilliams at mc.edu

On 2/24/12 9:55 AM, Ninov, Dimitar N wrote:
> Dear Colleagues,
> I have been thinking for a long time about the term "predominant" which has been in use mostly in Schenkerian theory or in theoretical formulations influenced by Schenker and his followers. I have come to the conclusion that this term is theoretically unjustified, and my arguments in support of this statement are explained below.
> As the planets in the solar system gravitate around the sun, so the chords in a tonal system gravitate around the tonic. The tonic is the only center of gravity in a key. Therefore, the harmonic function of any given chord is validated by its attitude towards the tonic. This attitude depends on the distance between the chord and the tonic, on the one hand, and on the structure of the chord, on the other.
> The term "subdominant" suggests that the IV chord is located a fifth below the tonal center, and that it is a "lower dominant". However, the term "predominant" contains no reference to the tonal center but to the dominant triad itself, as if a key had two centers. The attempt to validate a harmonic function with no relation to the tonal center seems theoretically unsupported to me.
> The IV and the II chords are called "predominants" because they stand "before" the dominant. But they also stand before the tonic (IV-I, II-I6; II6/5-I, etc.): how are they predominant in that case? On the other hand, I could attach the label "PD" to the tonic, the mediants, and all the different borrowed or altered chords that can precede the dominant. Would all these chords be “predominants” in such a context?
> Behind the dismissal of the term "subdominant" in a portion of contemporary American music theory stands the Schenkerian notion that a plagal relationship and a plagal cadence do not exist in music. According to this idea, any connection between IV and I, for example, will be interpreted as a "tonic prolongation". Therefore, the former subdominant function is evaluated not in the light of the tonic, but in the light of the dominant. This is how Schenkerian theory created two separate centers of evaluation of harmonic functions: the tonic, on the one hand, and the dominant, on the other. Two suns in a solar system.
> I would highly appreciate your thoughts concerning this matter.
> Best regards,
> Dimitar
> Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
> School of Music
> Texas State University
> 601 University Drive
> San Marcos, Texas 78666

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