[Smt-talk] Subdominant versus Predominant

Walt Everett weverett at umich.edu
Mon Feb 27 07:01:21 PST 2012

Dear List,

Dimitar Ninov writes:

> 1) The fact that a harmonic function in a key refers to the center of gravity is as open to discussion as the topic of the planets in the solar system which depend on the sun for their existence in a system. You are welcome to doubt it and to call it unprovable.

I will take up this invitation.  I seem to remember from elementary school that any object may exert a gravitational force on any other object, the strength of that force determined by mass and proximity.  Moons are proximate to planets and are therefore held within those gravitational fields while multiple planets orbit the sun, which in turn remains within its galaxy as do hundreds of billions of sister stars due to the pull of the supermassive galactic center, and I suppose the same force holds our local galaxies together.  Thus forces exist at multiple levels from the subatomic to the supergalactic, with multiple objects existing in sister systems at comparable levels, all objects related to each other in large and small ways.

I would not suggest a causal relation between such physical relationships and tonal behavior, but I would agree with Dimitar that a good analogy can be drawn between them.  He and I seem to disagree, though, in our interpretations of the most basic characteristics of both physical and tonal systems, insofar as I believe scale degrees can be understood to relate in large and small ways to each other in addition to their pull to the tonic.  Yes, all moons are drawn to the sun, but isn't the pull of a moon to a nearby planet analogous to IV as subsumed locally by the gravity of V, and also to the idea that some chord may be subsumed within a non-tonic harmonic field by forces of voice leading that expand such a function by drawing in proximate tones?  In terms of gravity and other force-based schemas that describe musical motion, I think Janna Saslaw, Steve Larson and Candace Brower use such metaphors in very convincing and interesting ways.

At the risk of being preachy, my other comment on this thread is to express a wish that more of an effort could be made to withhold ridicule, which is perceived if not intended when continual statements like "I find this ridiculous" are made about ideas promoted by others.  Likewise, characterizing another's thought processes without knowing what they are, such as for one writer to assert that they are the only participant with an open mind, contributes to an unsafe environment.  There have been several prior attempts to temper ad hominem attacks in this debate, and of course we're all able to trash selected posts without bothering to open them, but if we hope to influence each other in the scholarly realm, perhaps we should also try to reach each other in matters of courteous civil discourse when it seems so abundantly necessary.  I have at times found it fulfilling to debate those for whom I have great admiration, and such a benefit is suggested when I've seen others share conflicting ideas in a spirit of mutual respect.  I wish everyone using the list could at least pretend to appreciate the privilege of this interaction and acknowledge others' stated interests in maintaining a welcoming discourse.

Walt Everett, 
Chair of SMT Publications Committee and Professor of Music, University of Michigan

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