[Smt-talk] Theory Textbooks (Musical Syntax)

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Wed May 2 11:27:23 PDT 2012

Dear Ildar and Nicholas,

That was a very nice and meaningful theoretical exchange on functionalism! 

We should also keep into account that the harmonic syntax of the common practice period (I do not think it has ended, for its features may be identified in a variety of genres and styles today) is as much a reflection of acoustic realities inherent in the harmonic tone series, as a  psychological reaction related to style. For example, we may agree that the proper order of chords in the common practice period is governed by the principle of progressing, that is - increasing the degree of instability between two points of stability as represented by the tonic. In this sense, in a current paper I discuss the full order as T-M-S-D-T; the optimal order as T-S-D-T; and the short orders: T-S-T; T-D-T; T-M-S-T; T-M-D-T. I use the letter M to denote either an upper, or a lower mediant. Of course, the mediants may substitute for either T or D or S, but they can also appear as typical mediant chords in such orders as I-VI-IV (where VI is neither a tonic, nor a subdominant, but reveals its own character as an intermediate function-TS), and I-III-V (more rare progression, where III is neither a tonic nor a dominant, but reveals itself as and intermediate function-TD). This is why, I sometimes label the mediants as separate functions or just with Roman numerals, all the more, with the exploration of the tertian relationship and the chromatic mediants, the mediant function was greatly emancipated (it is useful to take a look at Stepan Grigoriev's Theoretical Course of Harmony, Moscow, 1981). In case of deceptive resolution I may mark the functions as either D-VI or D-Ts (tonic substitute), so here there is no issue here.

But there is such a phenomenon that I call "reversed syntax", that is - decreasing the level of stability between two points of stability. For example, in a popular song the connections  IV-VI or II-IV or V-II  represent examples of a reversed syntax. Depending on the overall character of the piece, such reversed syntax may sound natural in its own style. This reversed syntax is a phenomenon that formally stands out of the common practice period, but I tend to think of it as an extension of the CCP, for the same song that uses II-IV or IV-VI may very well have a pure classical authentic cadence, and even a cadential six-four, if you will. In "Hey Jude" we have another form of reversed syntax - the coda of the song consists of I-bVII-IV-I, which I interpret as T-Ds-S (tonic-dominant substitute-subdominant). Of course, we may also add that bVII is a subdominant of the subdominant, etc., but this chord quite frequently resolves directly into the tonic in such progressions as I-IV-bVII-I (T-S-Ds-T). As for V-II, it mostly happens in V-II-V where the two chord really prolongs the dominant, even if the connection is root-to root motion. But if the tempo is slow, it feels like a temporary decreasing of the tension.

Given the fact that in today's expanded tonality a single tonal center may subordinate a full gamut of major and minor triads built on all 12 steps of the chromatic scale (and they can also be explained theoretically), I think that the problem of the order of chords is deeper than we expect, may be its exploration will reveal new ways of thinking of harmonic functions, and will create new functions. In class I teach the norms of the syntax, but I never say that any connection is forbidden, because this will close a door before the students, and when they face a pop song, they would think that I lied to them. Until they have mastered the proper order of chords, and while they are harmonizing conventionally, I simply outline that they should avoid II-IV, IV-VI, and V-II, for instance. But with the arrival of modal mixture things become more exciting. By the way, II6 connects IV elegantly by a motion of a single tone, and does not violate the CCP; this may be explained as a subdominant with an appoggiatura that resolves.

Best regards,


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

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