[Smt-talk] Subdominant versus Predominant

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Sun Feb 26 12:17:06 PST 2012

Dear Ciro,

Thank you for your input. I would like to make two main points about it.

I. So far I have been trying to emphasize the fact that in a diatonic setting, the only paradigm is T. Therefore, for me, a chapter entitled "Leading to V" is inaccurately disposed in terms of title. In the T-S-D-T progression, the grand question is not how to approach D (which is not a paradigm; the only paradigm being the tonic) but how to depart from the state of stability and to return back to it. This could be executed in three main ways: 1) Full path: T-M-S-D-T. Here "M" stands for mediant harmony - either VI or III. 2) Typical path: T-S-D-T, the general plan of many complete works, called by many "an expanded cadential progression", and 3) Short path: T-D-T or (more rarely) T-S-T. The mere fact that all these three main paths exist reveals the priority of the dialectic "stability-instability-stability" over local connections in which the tonic does not participate. In the "instability" area we may have different chords, the most unstable one being D.

In this regard, I agree that very often the instability is built up gradually to a climactic point, but this is not done through chords which depend on V (unless they are actual secondary dominants or subdominants); this is done by chords which depend on the tonal center. The dominant is simply the last ring in the process of building the tension. 

A gradual process (full path) may be described in the following manner: the absolute center of stability (T) is left by way of M, which has two common tones with the tonic and thus represents a state of "neutral instability"; then the instability is increased by one degree through the appearance of S, which may or may not have  a common tone with the tonic (IV or II). In the case of including both IV and II, the latter represents a further increase of the instability within the S function; after that the D function appears, which also has degrees (VII and V) and brings the ultimate instability to the scene. The only expected result after this tension has been built is the tonic center T, where the energy subsides, and a relative or absolute point of repose occurs. Of course, various deceptive resolutions of D may either bring a sense of repose (VI) or (in a chromatic setting) further increase the tension by linking D with dissonant secondary functions leading elsewhere.

II. I like very much the following quotation: Furthermore, the three chords of these new progressions contain all the notes of the scale. This helps to express the key, as does the inevitable juxtaposition of scale degree 4 ( in II or IV) and scale degree 7 (in V), which, between them, produce the key-defining interval of the diminished 5th". 

But I am afraid there is an obvious discrepancy underlying Schenkerian theory; on the one hand it softly recognizes the fact that a full expression of tonality is made through three points (T, S, and D) as pointed out in your statement below "All three structures express the key"; on the other hand, scale degree 4th is erased from the ursatz and from the main bass line, and the S function is artificially cut in two portions: the one is called "tonic prolongation" and the other - "pre-dominant". This could be compared to the two different German republics (East and West) that existed during the cold war; an artificial division of the same people, who eventually united again.

I think that the S function is neither a prolongation of I, nor a preparation of V. It is neither an intermediate function (as M) nor a sub-function whose sole purpose is to precede the dominant. S is a harmonic function which plays an important role in both the paradigmatic  and the syntactical aspects of the key. As I mentioned in my previous email, the S function has two main aspects: to create a special degree of instability towards T (called a plagal relationship), and to counterbalance the tendency of D to sound like a local tonic.

I cannot subscribe to a theory which completely erases the subdominant function from tonal music, forces a perfect ascending line 5-6-7-8 to become descending (!); creates two paradigms in a key (tonic and dominant), and explains that all the cadences in tonal music are two: authentic and deceptive. The half-cadence for them could only end on V (authentic). What if it ends on a different chord? It is not a cadence. 

I am happy that many musicians in the world think that tonality has one paradigm (T) and three pillars: T, S and D. I think that for Schenkerian theorists, the common practice period stopped somewhere with Beethoven. The common practice period continues to nowadays, and the subdominant function and the plagal relationship have been widely explored by late romantic composers, Russian composers of the XIX century, and by many composers of the XX century who wrote film scores and popular tunes whose parameters may be described as "common practice". 

I regret that, in view of all this richness and beauty, all the recent American textbooks of theory downgrade the S function, and stay somewhere in the early XIX century, imagining prolongations all over the place.

Best regards,


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

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