[Smt-talk] Subdominant versus Predominant

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Fri Feb 24 11:51:02 PST 2012

Dear Benjamin,

Thank you. I read your collaborative paper with great interest! It gives a lot of information on different schools of thought and ideas on how to distinguish between S and PD.

But I am afraid I have not stated my point clearly. I was not wondering what the difference between S and PD was. I was questioning the very existence of PD as a function and label.

Allow me to quote the last thought from your paper:

"Without being able to distinguish predominant and subdominant behavior in functional analysis, students would be left fumbling, 
trying to fit a subdominant function into a predominant paradigm. With such a distinction, 
however, students can be sufficiently prepared to approach music of the late romantic in a way 
that will enrich their understanding of such music, and inform their appreciation and 
performance alike."

I think that there are not two different harmonic functions such as S and PD. There is no "pre-dominant paradigm". Why? Because a harmonic function is determined in relation to the tonal center, not to the dominant. The earth does not depend on Jupiter; it depends on the sun. In this sense, the students do not have to be confused by having to make an analytical choice between an invented term and function which do not refer to the tonal center, and the real function of IV and II as they relate to the tonal center.

Of course, you may say that II behaves to V as a potential dominant, with which I will immediately agree. But the idea of giving an official function and label to a chord which does not refer to a single center (T) would entail a whole group of imaginary functions such as: pre-subdominant (all the chords that could logically occur before the subdominant); pre-mediant (all that could occur before a mediant, including the tonic); and pre-tonic (all that could precede the tonic). This would be a visual decentralization of the key by neglecting the tonic's force of gravity in favor of local sets of chords that connect together well. A visual mess.

The T-S-D-T progression - whether present in root to root motion, or via stepwise motion in the bass, or even implied over a bass pedal - governs structurally the development of a musical piece. In this sense we may hear an expanded cadential progression and a period form even over a pedal point. Of course, occasionally S is not present in a passage. But it is an inseparable par of a complete work. 

The problem today is that, many musicians "see" and "hear" prolongations just about everywhere, neglecting the harmonic motion that is in the heart of the phrasal structure. This approach is also detached form practicality. When you want an accompanist to play I-V6/4-I6, you do not simply tell him: play a tonic prolongation. You have to give him the real chords with their inversions. 

Must we label visually every beat in a musical composition? No, of course. But when we label a passage as prolongational, I think we must be able to hear clearly - not simply to imagine - the chord that is prolonged throughout that passage. This mainly happens when a pedal point is present, and when a passing six-four figure occurs, although the latter's impact also depends on the tempo. But I find it wrong to automatically prescribe the label "prolongation" to all progressions which involve a stepwise motion in the bass. In my view, such an approach leads to misleading harmonic and therefore formal analysis, as numerous imperfect cadences are "erased" in favor of an imaginary prolongation. The paradox that is lurking form some newly-written theory books is that they do not recognize imperfect cadences such as V6-I, for example. This is astonishing.

The notion that IV is an embellishing chord (outside of I-IV6/4-I) is (softly said) strange. A root to root motion between I and IV is impressive, but that is not all. As you mention in your paper, the subdominant-tonic relationship increases with the romantic and late romantic music, (including Russian music from XIX century) and XX century idioms rooted in tonal music. Would all these functional exchange be heard as "tonic prolongations"? Music would be too poor if it succumbed to that concept...

Also, how would some colleagues call the IV-I6/4-IV6 progression? A subdominant prolongation? But that would be in discrepancy with the notion that the subdomiannt does not exist (according to Schenkerian theory). A pre-dominant prolongation? But a PD function refers us to the dominant, not to the tonal center...

Best regards,


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

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