[Smt-talk] Theory Textbooks (Musical Syntax)

Nicolas Meeùs nicolas.meeus at paris-sorbonne.fr
Thu May 3 10:06:50 PDT 2012

Le 2/05/2012 20:27, Ninov, Dimitar N a écrit :
> [...]
> We should also keep into account that the harmonic syntax of the common practice period [...] 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.
> [...]
There certainly is a privileged direction in common practice tonality, 
but I'd hesitate to qualify it as increasing instability, or as 
reflecting an acoustic reality. Schoenberg, at least, described the 
usual progressions as "descending", by which he meant that the roots 
descended the harmonic series (say, from V to I, harmonic 3 to 2, 
possibly also from V to III, harmonic 6 to 5, or III to I, harmonic 5 to 
4). He would probably have described such movements as increasing 
stability (or decreasing instability). Yet, the reference to the 
harmonic series is possible only in major and remains, I think, 
metaphoric at best.

Or else the increasing instability must be viewed as a move away from T 
(the tonic), either "upwards" toward D (the dominant) or "downwards" 
toward S (the subdominant), followed by a return: this, I think, would 
reflect how Riemann himself understood tonal functions – but such a view 
does not account for the privileged direction.

The privileged direction, in my opinion, can only be described as 
statistical, as being the most frequent, without recourse to acoustic 
considerations that do not resist close scrutiny. Some of my younger 
colleagues in the Sorbonne have evidenced that one reason of the 
privileged direction is that it allows resolution of the dissonances. 
But that simply (or not as simply as that) displaces the problem to 
determining why dissonances must be resolved in descending. I think that 
this has been discussed already on SMT-Talk.

Recognizing that the privileged direction cannot be rooted in acoustics 
(because of the problem of the minor) leads one to admit that the only 
possibility is to offer theoretical explanations that are more or less 
arbitrary – and to admit that several theories may include some of the 
"truth" (whatever that is). Ildar's suggestion that we should clearly 
identify our theoretical paradigms at the beginning of our classes 
therefore is important. But I see little possibility to decide that one 
theory is better than another.

Nicolas Meeùs
Université Paris-Sorbonne

More information about the Smt-talk mailing list