[Smt-talk] Governing Tone (Tonality versus Modality)

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Mon May 7 07:19:36 PDT 2012

I was intrigued by Paul Setziol's polarizing of tonality and modality. I want to say a few things about that as follows:

1. There has never been a wall between modality and tonality. The intermingle all the time, especially in XX century tonal music that is rooted in the classico-romantic tradition. You may have a leading tone in a modal progression just as easily as you have it in a typical classical passage.

2. The dominant function as a harmonic phenomenon does not depend, and has not been created by the leading tone; it is only sharpened and enhanced by the presence of the leading tone. The dominant-tonic relationship as a leap in a perfect fifth downward  is as old as the overtones series, although it did not come to the forefront until 15-16th century, when composers were looking consistently for more ways of defining a tonic than 2-1 and 7-1. Also, I do not know why some colleagues call a mode that makes use of the leading tone "Dorian". This is not Dorian any more, no matter how you explain that leading tone - as a nota ficta of otherwise. 

3. The minor dominant has its specific place in different styles and epochs: in classical music it mostly departs from the tonic to connect VI or IV6 (and students must master that connection); but with the arrival of modal mixture it really functions as a mild dominant chord. "Take Five" by Dave Brubeck is a simple piece in which classical and contemporary modal features are mixed - we hear both the tonic-minor dominant connection in the beginning of theme, and the leading tone dominant at the end of the bridge. Yet the style is not undermined in the least.

As I mentioned, using the minor dominant in minor is limited within the classical style; but when studying modal mixture, students must be encouraged to use the minor dominant not only in minor, but also in major, to compose passages with modal mixture chords and to harmonize melodies with those. And, of course, to laugh at statements like "the only element borrowed from major to minor is the picardy third". In fact, the presence of a leading tone in minor - no matter how you explain it - as fluctuation of the same scale degree or as a pursuit for a greater determination of the tonic - is a modal mixture phenomenon; a borrowed element from major, where the tonic is naturally defined by a leading tone. In an unrestricted modal mixture style, all the chords from major penetrate minor and vice versa. Thus you may use chords such as #vi or #iii in minor, for example.

And finally, modal mixture does not mean only the process of borrowing melodic or harmonic elements from the opposite mode; it also means borrowing from the old modes. The Neapolitan being one example, you may also use chords such as VII minor in bot major and minor keys, etc.
Unfortunately, textbook authors are massively unaware of that fact, when they study Neapolitan separately from the chapters of Modal mi mixture, and when they keep saying to their students that "the only borrowed element from major to minor is the picardy third" This misunderstanding prevents them from fully exploring, understanding, and presenting modal mixture as a great topic.

Best regards,


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

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