[Smt-talk] The "Governing tone"

Nicolas Meeùs nicolas.meeus at paris-sorbonne.fr
Fri May 4 13:35:47 PDT 2012

May I recall (as I think I already said here) that "sudominante" (i.e. 
"super dominant") is the standard designation in French today, as it 
probably was in the 18th century? Naming all the degrees of the scale 
has been an important issue in music theory since at least the early 
18th century; naming functions, or "sonorities", is a recent concern.

I think that the most important issue concerning the term "super 
dominant" (instead of "submediant") is that it involves understanding 
the subdominant as the degree under the dominant, not as the dominant 
under the tonic. I don't know enough about early German terminology to 
know how it compares to French terminology of tonal degrees, but I do 
believe that the discrepancies about super- and subdominant do reflect 
important differences in the conception of tonality in France and Germany.

I don't think that the etymology of mediant as "middle" is a "pseudo" 
etymology. The term is one of the earliest ones to describe a scale 
degree, certainly much earlier than "tonic". It denoted the intermediate 
note between final and tenor in modal theory. In this context, may I 
remain once again that Fétis did not use the term "subdominant" and 
prefered "4th degree of the scale"?

As to the dominant as the "governing tone", I think that Momigny said 
something like that early in the 19th century. Such a statement to some 
extent is linked to the belief that tonality arises from the harmonic 
series: if pushed to harmonic 7, the series (as usually notated) seems 
to describe the dominant, not the tonic -- or in other words, the 
diatonic scale of a given key is best built on its dominant. [May I had 
that, in my opinion, the belief that the dominant seventh cord is formed 
of harmonics 1--3--5--7 or 4--5--6--7 is but a phantasm -- or a metaphor?]

I feel that since the beginning of this thread on SMT-Talk, there is a 
constant confusion between the history of theories, the origin and 
history of the terms, etc., and opinions about what they "really" mean. 
My own belief is that our opinions should be based on history, and that 
the more you know about history, the less certain you become of your 


Nicolas Meeùs
Université Paris-Sorbonne

Le 4/05/2012 19:35, Arthurs, Daniel a écrit :
> 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
> Danny Arthurs, Lecturer, UNT
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