[Smt-talk] Subdominant versus Predominant

Nicolas Meeùs nicolas.meeus at paris-sorbonne.fr
Fri Feb 24 14:35:46 PST 2012

Le 24/02/2012 16:55, Ninov, Dimitar N a écrit :
> [...]
> 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.
I don't know whether this is "theoretically" supported, but it certainly 
is historically very much supported. It is at the core of French theory 
and probably at the origin of the word "subdominant" itself.

Rousseau, in the /Dictionnaire/, wonders about the origin of the term. 
He writes (s.v. "Sous-dominante"):

    *Sous-dominante* ou *Soudominante*. Nom donné par Monsieur Rameau à
    la quatrième note du ton, laquelle est par conséquent au même
    intervalle de la tonique en descendant, qu'est la dominante en
    montant [...]. Je puis me tromper dans l'acception des deux mots
    précédents, n'ayant pas sous les yeux, en écrivant cet article, les
    écrits de Monsieur Rameau. Peut-être entend-il simplement, par
    sous-dominante, la note qui est un degré au-dessous de la dominante
         [Subdominant. Name given by Rameau to the fourth note of the
    key, which therefore is at the same descending interval from the
    tonic as the dominant is ascending. I may be mistaken in the
    acception of these two words [the text also discusses
    "sous-médiante", submediant], not having under the eyes the writings
    of Rameau as I write this article. He may understand by subdominant
    simply the note that is one degree under the dominant.]

It often is difficult to say how the term was understood. In French 
today, and probably from Rameau and before, it means the degree under 
the dominant, not the dominant under the tonic. The earliest instance of 
the term that I know of is in Dandrieu's /Principes de 
l'accompagnement/, /c/1719. That Dandrieu understood "soudominante" as 
the degree under the dominant can be deduced from his usage of 
"sudominante", the degree above it. This has been the almost constant 
usage in French (and a few other languages) since then. Note that the 
word does not occur in Rameau's Treatise of 1722, nor, for that matter, 
in Fétis' Treatise: they both merely write "the 4th degree".

I won't take position about this now. But I wanted to stress that this 
kind of discussion has been going since centuries.

Nicolas Meeùs
Université Paris-Sorbonne

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