[Smt-talk] Movable-Do

Chris Bonds chbonds1 at willy.wsc.edu
Sun Jul 15 09:13:37 PDT 2012

On 7/14/2012 7:53 PM, Root, Jena wrote:
> I'm bracing myself for the fixed/movable debate that I am certain is 
> about to follow on this list, but I have zero interest in engaging it 
> myself. Rather, I would like to pose a sincere question: Do you feel 
> it is important for students to internalize scale-degree relationships 
> while singing/hearing? And if so, what method do you use to teach 
> those relationships?

You didn't ask me, but I'll tell you what I think anyway! :)

For me, the real question is, in tonal music, does the scale degree of a 
tone change the way we subjectively interpret the "meaning" of that 
tone? Obviously the answer is yes--tonality wouldn't work otherwise. I 
dislike the word "internalize" because it does not convey a clear idea 
of what happens when we experience music. For example, it could mean 
something as straightforward as expecting that a particular tone (say D) 
will tend to "behave" in a certain way, that is, be preceded and 
followed by tones in ways that make it clear what D's position in that 
particular scale is. (If you sense the ghost of Leonard B. Meyer here, 
there's a reason for that!)

Of course, everything is dependent on style. For example, it's common in 
certain kinds of acoustic-inspired folk-rock to follow (using 
traditional chord analysis) V7/V with IV, something that's discouraged 
in traditional harmony. At least, it used to be.

People who make contemporary pop, hip-hop, etc., to the extent they use 
harmony in their music, use a language of "slash chords" "flat-fives," 
etc. This suggests a knowledge of a "common practice" or "industry 
standard" which is as iron-clad as 18th-century practice but is 
communicated in a different way. I think this is inevitable. It's a 
practical way to communicate to learners a method by which "hits" can be 
generated. It's constantly re-inventing its own lingua franca.

How does this relate to your question? I'm not sure exactly, but try 
this: If contemporary pop musicians "internalize" music in the way I 
describe, that is, thinking in terms of chord formulas, then a 
particular tone's function in a scale seems much less important than 
thinking up creative ways of stringing chords together.

But if a person wants to experience the power of the music of Bach on 
through the 19th century in somewhat the same way that contemporary ears 
did, then "internalizing" scale degree function seems indispensable. I 
don't much care how it gets taught. That's a contract between the 
teacher and the student.

Christopher Bonds
Wayne State College (retired)

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