[Smt-talk] Subdominant versus Predominant

Walt Everett weverett at umich.edu
Tue May 8 04:01:55 PDT 2012

Dear List,

I would like to try to clear up a common misunderstanding.  A response to my recent post on the various functions played by IV in the blues is based upon an incorrect assumption as to my interests:

> In the posting by Walt Everett there is even an attempt to "downgrade the Subdominant" in the blues 12-bar progression

I did not intend to, nor did I succeed in, downgrading the IV in bar 10 of the blues.  What I did was to recognize its structural function as less deep than the V that precedes it.  To equate structural status with value (as in "importance" or "merit") is to draw a common but false correspondence.  In fact, when I referred to the value of IV here as "nuanced," I implied an elevation of its worth to my ear.

An analogy, a brief counterexample, and a longer illustration of my point:

To say that the girders holding up a museum's walls are of greater structural status than the paintings that hang there is not an assignment of worth or importance in the aesthetic domain.  To argue the relationship between independent musical structure and dependent musical ornament does not logically lead to the question "where are my favorite notes?."  If a museumgoer momentarily looks beyond the paintings to the walls that hold it, and imagines the structure beneath, there has been no intention or desire to discard or demote anything.  Architects, contractors, builders, interior designers, artists, patrons--all may have different and modulating ideas of "importance," but they are not necessarily incompatible.

Example: In bars 9-12 of a blues, let's say that instead of occupying all of bar 10, IV holds for only the first half of the bar, the remainder of which is filled by bIII (the resulting V - IV - bIII representing a common major-triad doubling of a minor-pentatonic tumbling strain in the blues-rock idiom).  Would one say the performer has demoted IV?  Would one deny any relationship between the full bar of V and the I to which it eventually descends, now through two softening agents?

My longer illustration, from the Beatles' "Day Tripper."  The verse's first eight bars proceed as usual for the first two phrases of a 12-bar structure.  But the third phrase, the refrain, represents a "Sunday driving" digression requiring eight bars that involve a number of meandering major triads and major-minor seventh chords built on five different degrees of the major scale (a pre-"Walrus" major-triad doubling conceit for Lennon.)  The deepest harmonic value in the extended Abgesang is the V that occupies bar 16, reached only by a circuitous route.  The eight bars consist of four bars of II7 (F# - A# - C# - E in the key of E) and then one bar each of IV7 - III7 - VI - V.  I like to interpret the functions thus: II7 works as V7 of V, motion to its target interrupted by a digression.  Instead, II7 moves directly to IV7 in a Beatles voice-leading idiom I and others have discussed much elsewhere.  IV7 - III7 - VI can be taken as a teasing tonicization of VI, C#, through its German and V7.  Then, when the singer finally realizes what is going on ("it took me soooo long to find out, but I found out"), upper-neighbor VI finds the elusive V.  One might even hear the whole-step descent of the final VI - V as a pun on the blues structure's V - IV.  But if one loses the primal sense of V here, one is also likely to miss out on the sense behind the guitar solo's enlightening culmination on the ^2 prolonged through anticipation over the V7 ostinato, Harrison's rising diatonic scale of a twelfth in the backbeat-articulated volume tone-controlled Strat underneath McCartney's solo Casino, and the choral vocal "Ah!" Eureka articulated in measured acceleration (three bars then two bars then one) and undergirded by Lennon's power chords that hearken back to the "Ticket to Ride" retransition.  If one never comes to appreciate, even after long difficulty, the way V is unfolded, delayed and ultimately brandished in this song, one may never even be able to say "it took me so long to find out."  One may never hear beyond the tease.  best, walt everett

Walter Everett
Professor of Music
Department of Music Theory
The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance
1100 Baits Dr.
Ann Arbor, MI  48109-2085

weverett at umich.edu
voice: 734-763-2039
fax: 734-763-5097

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