[Smt-talk] The "Governing tone"

Arthurs, Daniel Daniel.Arthurs at unt.edu
Fri May 4 10:35:59 PDT 2012

To Michael, David (Feurzig), and the list,

To clarify my remark: it’s strange to me because Venth (et al. according to David) is describing a scale step, not a sonority (so far as I can tell, and which your descriptions focus on).  It’s entirely possible I am reading it too literally when he states, “Each tone of the scale, whether major or minor, has its distinctive name.”  It’s going to be much harder to teach a class that the dominant scale step somehow governs over the key (and do we really use such tyrannical metaphors in describing stuff like this? Michael says it “dominates” the tonic, and so does the Clendinning & Marvin text).  Otherwise I agree with both of your descriptions of functional harmony.

Perhaps this arises from a potential confusion that comes up every time I teach Theory 1: First I introduce the functional scale-step names, then later the functional harmonies that are created from those scale-steps, often stating, “The harmonies share the same formal names. Sometimes we may refer to the tonic as a melodic tone, other times as a triad.”

I also found it strange because sometimes it appears Venth (and others, as David Carson Berry pointed out) attempts to give (pseudo?) etymologies of scale step names (mediant is “middle”, for instance, which I have no argument with).  Today some ascribe numeric equivalencies to those formal names, calling mediant “third” as opposed to “middle”, and submediant (which doesn’t appear in Venth and others) as “under-third” (i.e., relative to the tonic).  In Kostka-Payne, they plainly write, “Musicians…often refer to scale degrees by a set of traditional names rather than numbers,” p. 17.  Also, modern texts today show a literal orbit of scale steps below and above the tonic (as in the Clendinning-Marvin, Kostka-Payne, or Laitz texts), but Venth’s clearly has everything literally orbiting the dominant by capping it with the tonic and eighth tone as “completing tone,” which of course is also the tonic.  (Also, I didn’t intend for any negative connotation by my use of the word “strange.”)

Finally, if students today were asked to decide which scale step governs over the key, I wonder how many would say “dominant”?


Danny Arthurs, Lecturer, UNT

From: Michael Luxner [mailto:mluxner at mail.millikin.edu]<mailto:[mailto:mluxner at mail.millikin.edu]>
Sent: Friday, May 04, 2012 10:47 AM
To: smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org<mailto:smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org>; Arthurs, Daniel
Cc: nicolas.meeus at paris-sorbonne.fr<mailto:nicolas.meeus at paris-sorbonne.fr>; Dimitar N Ninov
Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] The "Governing tone"


How do you feel about considering the dominant the "governing tone?"  I don't think it's strange at all, and teach it that way all the time.  If tonic is perceived as the "pitch of rest," surely it must be resting from something, from some kind of tension that gives the sense of resolution when tonic is reached.  And that something, whether determined by the acoustics of the harmonic series or the habits of centuries of practice, would be the dominant.  Thus the dominant does, indeed, "govern" ("dominate") the tonic.

Michael Luxner, Ph.D.
Professor of Music
Millikin University

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>>> "Arthurs, Daniel" <Daniel.Arthurs at unt.edu<mailto:Daniel.Arthurs at unt.edu>> 5/3/2012 6:07 PM >>>
Dear List,

It seems very strange to me that he considers the dominant “the governing tone”; the subdominant is under it, but then he adds a second moon orbiting around the dominant when he describes VI as the super dominant, not submediant!

Danny Arthurs<http://music.unt.edu/mhte/node/208>
Lecturer of Music Theory<http://music.unt.edu/mhte/node/208>
Division of MHTE<http://www.music.unt.edu/mhte>
College of Music<http://www.music.unt.edu/>, UNT<http://www.unt.edu/>

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