[Smt-talk] List-servs & inversions

Charles J. Smith cjsmith at buffalo.edu
Mon Apr 22 12:09:59 PDT 2013

In the recent Proctor/Väisälä exchange, we see the perils of trying to have real discussions about serious and important topics by list-serv. Perhaps this is a medium that has outlived its usefulness? It certainly is a pale shadow of what it was a decade or so ago, but that version (SMT Listserv 1.0?) was in some ways even more irritating. So did it ever have any usefulness? Well, not a whole lot perhaps, but there have fairly regularly been posts (a couple every month) that I print up and file, as something worth thinking about. They are usually the postings about particular configurations in particular pieces, but that might just be my particular take on things. It might be interesting to find out how many of the younger generation of self-described music theorists are subscribed; my sense is that the numbers are dwindling, for a variety of reasons.

This last exchange puzzles me, however. I know Olii slightly (we shared a ferry ride from Talinn to Helsinki a few years ago); he reminded me that we had had a listserv run-in quite a while back, so I dug up and reread those posts and it was indeed an interesting disagreement about what counts as a "chordal" sonority in chromatic music. He is a smart guy and had a point; he didn't make me mad with his disagreement, and I hope I didn't enrage him either. Perhaps we both learned something from the exchange? What's the old saying?—I learn more from listening than from talking...

Gregory is, as most of know (or should know) is one of the deepest thinkers about music out there. Someone whose every utterance is worth careful scrutiny, no matter how loony it might sound on the surface, if only because of all the brilliant things he has already said, in so many contexts on so many different subjects. So if he states that "inversion is overrated in classical music", I  am intrigued to try to figure out what he meant. It is a statement that opens some interesting doors, at least for me.

My own theoretical and pedagogical inclinations have of late been to mistrust Roman numerals (i.e. the whole apparatus of roots and inversions) more and more. This is a long story, which will soon be presented more fully in some other venue, but tonal functionality seems to me to be better captured by describing the functions of chords and their bass scale-steps, with figured-bass symbols brought in when one needs to know something about the particular chord-quality, whether there are sevenths that need resolving, and so forth—and RNs hardly at all. (It was quite gratifying a few years ago to find out that this approach to harmony, in use at Buffalo for years, decades even, was independently arrived at by Ian Quinn at Yale—another of those thinkers who is always worth a careful listen.) In other words, of the three established historical approaches to harmony—function theory, thorough bass, and fundamental bass—the first two are the more useful, and the third is only brought in for relatively minor questions. (...no double meaning intended...humour and irony being so treacherous to attempt in email...)

So I'd be interested in discussing with Gregory a take on his remarks that might well be completely opposite from what he intended: namely that there is little need to talk about the inversions of functional chords because there is little theoretical need for the constant reference to chord-roots in functional harmony. Put simply, if we don't know or care what the root of a chord is, then we can hardly talk about its inversion. On the other hand, I'd be hard-pressed to justify the jettisoning of figured bass symbols—and this is perhaps what Olii was saying. Once we have characterized a chord as, say, a Dominant over ^2, the figured bass is essential for differentiating between variants of that basic chord-type: a 6/4, a 6/3, a 6/4/3, and a 6/5/3. They all share a certain basic functional behaviour; the differences between them are less crucial matters of melodic support and voice-leading.

What are roots and RNs useful for? That's another question, with somewhat surprising answers, for another time.

In the meantime, I recognize that this is a controversial approach to functional harmony. If you think the basic approach is absurd, well, fine...no need to waste bandwidth sharing your opinion. It probably is absurd—Schluss, Amen! enough said. If you have a constructive suggestion, I welcome it. And I particularly invite Gregory to remain on the list and share his thoughts: have I completely missed the point of his remark? Very likely...I learned a long time ago that I'm not in his league. But the list-serv will be the poorer for his absence, even if all he chooses to do is read in silence...

Best wishes to all,

> I knew people would choose to miscast my remarks. I should know better by now that lists like these have sunk bit by bit to the level of comments on political blogs. I give up. Goodbye list. 
> ________________________________________
> From: smt-talk-bounces at lists.societymusictheory.org [smt-talk-bounces at lists.societymusictheory.org] on behalf of Olli Väisälä [ovaisala at siba.fi]
> Sent: Sunday, April 21, 2013 2:35 AM
> To: smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org
> Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] ABSENCE OF LEAD SHEET
> Gregory Proctor wrote:
>> Since I have been teaching graduate students primarily in the past
>> few years, I find myself using lead sheet notation more and more.
>> It is especially helpful in reminding them that what "inversion" a
>> chord is in is usually insignificant compared to its nature (triad,
>> added sixth, seventh)
> and
>> I meant to assert thaqt our notation is silly and that inversion is
>> overrated in classical music.
> "Inversion is overrated in classical music." What interesting
> assertions we encounter in this e-mail list!
> Indeed. Just think of all those stupid classical composers who
> bothered themselves with those overrated inversions and bass lines
> (if the composers of the ludicrous figured-bass tradition even
> realized they were writing "inversions"). Just imagine what a
> marvellous repertoire they MIGHT have created, if they only had had
> the wisdom presented above.
> Olli Väisälä
> Sibelius Academy
> University of the Arts, Helsinki
> ovaisala at siba.fi
> _______________________________________________
> Smt-talk mailing list
> Smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org
> http://lists.societymusictheory.org/listinfo.cgi/smt-talk-societymusictheory.org
> _______________________________________________
> Smt-talk mailing list
> Smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org
> http://lists.societymusictheory.org/listinfo.cgi/smt-talk-societymusictheory.org


Charles J. Smith
Slee Chair of Music Theory & Director of Graduate Studies
Department of Music, 220 Baird Hall
University at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY 14260
716-645-0639 [academic office]
716-645-3824 [fax]
cjsmith at buffalo.edu

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://lists.societymusictheory.org/pipermail/smt-talk-societymusictheory.org/attachments/20130422/7e59b7ac/attachment-0004.htm>

More information about the Smt-talk mailing list