[Smt-talk] Teaching Outside of Book Limitations

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Sun Sep 23 09:05:42 PDT 2012

Dear Colleagues,

I introduced a topic named “Teaching Outside of Book Limitations” because there are too many problems concerning different aspects of music theory that need to be addressed outside of textbooks. One of these problems is the non-chord tones, particularly suspensions.

Teaching suspensions by throwing different numbers to the student (4-3, 6-5, 7-6, 9-8 and 2-3, etc.) – with no reference to the chord tone that is being displaced, the function of the chord, its harmonic position and normative doubling – is like shooting randomly in the air with the hope to kill a bird. 

For example, in many books you will read over and over that 9-8 works perfectly if the displaced tone is simultaneously present with the suspension, but you will be disappointed if you try the same with 7-6 or 4-3. This general statement is false and irresponsibly given to the students. For example, 9-8 may mean a displacement of a root in a fifth chord, or a third in a sixth chord, or a fifth in a 6-4 chord. How can one generalize that it is always good within these three different situations? The same with the other numbers: 4-3, 7-8, 2-3, etc.

Considering the simultaneous presence of the suspended tone along with the suspension, there are acceptable and unacceptable suspensions of each 9-8, 7-6, and 4-3 kind. These will be assessed according to the factors mentioned above. 

Acceptable 9-8: place a major or minor triad in root position and displace its root in another voice, in a different octave register. Unacceptable 9-8 will occur if you place a primary triad (T, S or D) in first inversion and displace its third in another voice. 

Acceptable 7-6: place a major or minor triad in first inversion and displace its root in another voice. Unacceptable 7-6: displace the third of the cadential six-four in another voice and insert it along with the suspension. Since the third is not informatively doubled in any six-four, the acoustic effect will not be encouraging.

Acceptable 4-3: place a primary triad in first inversion and displace its fifth in another voice; if the fifth is also present an octave below the suspension, the aural effect will be perfectly acceptable, for a first inversion primary triad doubles normatively either the root or the fifth.

The secondary triads (II, III, VI and VII) represent additional problems that will be solved successfully if we take into account the normative doubling in these triads, their harmonic position and which chord tone is being displaced at the moment. 

Since there are exceptions to the typical situations within primary or secondary chords, the teacher must encourage the student to practice more and develop sensitivity and taste. For example, in a deceptive resolution V-VI, the third of VI in root position may be suspended and yet simultaneously present an octave below the suspension. Why? Because the third is usually doubled in a deceptive resolution. Wagner prelude to “Tristan und Isolde” is full of such examples.

As you can see, numbers are totally irrelevant to a good assessment of a situation concerning suspensions. Each number may reveal totally different situations, some of which are acceptable and others are not. 

Finally, we may have any numbers, depending on the voice and direction of the suspension. The usual numbers given to the student do not exhaust the fine possibilities of suspending tones; the students must be shown more possibilities. Otherwise, they will look startled when they encounter something that is not present in the books. By the way, so may look their teachers as well. For example, how about a 3-2 suspension or a 5-4 one (this is much easier)?

With best regards,

Dimitar Ninov

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

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