[Smt-talk] Caution versus Generalization

Joel Galand galandj at fiu.edu
Mon Aug 26 17:49:20 PDT 2013

Dear All:

I think this is more a response to Dimitar than Marcel, and it mainly address the question of whether certain 6/4 chords are actually rooted.

When a 6/4 chord (e.g., the one colloquially called "the cadential 6/4") follows a pre-dominant harmony and precedes a V or V7 (as in the progressions VII7/V--cad 6/4--V7  or II6/5--cad 6/4--V7), then I don't believe it makes syntactic sense to take the 4th above the bass of the 6/4 as a root.  If you want to assert that these particular 6/4 chords have tonic roots, then you also have to start explaining that although a V-of-V or a VII-of-V would normally go to V, it can also go to I, provided the I is in 6/4 position, and accented, and the 4th of the 6/4 resolves to the 3rd of the V, and etc. etc.  

Nor do I understand why there should be a conceptual difference between a V whose third is delayed by a 4-3 suspension or accented passing tone and a V in which the 4-3 is accompanied by parallel 3rds above or parallel 6ths below.  If we have no problem interpreting the stand-alone 4th as an accented dissonance, why should the addition of a suspended or accented passing 6th alter the situation?  We gain, to be sure, melodic and rhythmic enrichment and often smoother voice leading by interpolating both a 6th and a 4th, but neither alters the harmonic situation, whether singly or together.  (IMHO, as the kids write.)

As for the passing 6/4, let's take a motion between two closely related pre-dominant harmonies, such as II4/3 and V6/5/V or IV6 and II6/6, and let's soften the resulting leaps with passing tones.  Lo and behold, a 6/4 emerges.  But it is surely not a tonic chord with root ^1.  It happens to have the same pitches as  tonic chord, but that's just happenstance--the fortuitous result of a filled-in voice exchange, usually.  Do we really say in such instances that a II4/3 chord, which ought to proceed to a V (directly or by way of continued prolongation of the pre-dominant function), somehow changes it's mind (as it were), retreats to a tonic, then moves on to another pre-dominant?

What I try to tell my students is that pitch content alone does not determine the harmony, and we cannot assume, just because a chord contains the same pitches as a tonic chord, that it actually is a tonic.  

To clinch the argument, I say that surely no one would take a C-major song ending with C-E-G-A or even C-E A as ending on a VI6/5 or VI6.  They end on tonics, even if the notes are the same as those that might appear in a VI6 or VI6/5.  

First day of class tomorrow, and I expect that all the transfers, as usual,  will want to know why I don't label cadential 6/4 chords as tonics.  As always, there will be some that are unconvinced.  Well, as long as they use them successfully, I'll be happy.   It's a practical class (part writing, somemodel composition)--not really theory.

Dimitar may reply that I too am guilty of extrapolating from a strict contrapuntal style to the tonal realm of common practice. And I suppose he would be right, although I do not think the realms are so distinct that some translation across them is impossible (see, for example, the  "Bridges to Free Composition" section of Schenker's COUNTERPOINT.)  

All the best,


All the best,


Joel Galand
Associate Professor of Music Theory
Graduate Program Director
School of Music
Florida International University

From: smt-talk-bounces at lists.societymusictheory.org [smt-talk-bounces at lists.societymusictheory.org] on behalf of Marcel de Velde [marcel at justintonation.com]
Sent: Monday, August 26, 2013 6:26 PM
To: smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org
Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] Caution versus Generalization

Dear Dimitar,

Thank you for sharing your insights.
And I find the subject very interesting.

I've not yet tested my personal views on the dissonance of the 6/4
chords with any rigor, but will still share them here as perhaps they
are interesting to you or others on this list as well.
The way I think I tend to hear the dissonant quality of a 6/4 chord is
when I truly hear the bass as the root which to me, in the context of
music based mainly on major / minor triads, means that I hear an implied
perfect fifth above the bass.
This perfect fifth, even though not played, is still virtually present
for me in the chord, so when the chord G-C-E is played I think I'm
hearing it as G-C-[D]-E (and perhaps even G-[B]-C-[D]-E) in a way), in
which case the dissonance is easily explained.
While this is also the case for first inversion chords, the "virtual
perfect fifth" does not create the same dissonance for first inversion
chords as this makes E-G-[B]-C and C-E-[G]-A which are fairly consonant

Kind regards,

Marcel de Velde
Zwolle, Netherlands
marcel at justintonation.com

> Dear Colleagues,
> I have always been cautious about dealing frivolously with the term “dissonant” when it comes to second inversion triads. For one, “unstable” and “dissonant” are not immediate equivalents. One interval may be harmonically unstable in context and yet consonant. For example the third G-B as part of a dominant triad in C major is an unstable consonance.
> Six-four chords are harmonically ambiguous not because of an unquestionable dissonant fourth between the bass and its original root, but because of the implied functional rivalry between the bass and the actual root of the chord (here I agree with Schoenberg’s reflections on pp. 75-76 of Theory of Harmony). This ambiguity may be either reduced or exacerbated, depending on the context we create.
> For example, the passing, pedal and arpeggiated 6/4 chords – thanks to the special conditions they are placed in – exhibit the least amount of ambiguity and represent weaker versions of the original functions carried by their actual roots. When we arpeggiate a tonic triad via bass line, we do not experience alternations of consonant and “dissonant” tonics, do we? Neither are we stricken by the “dissonant qualities” of either a passing V6/4 between two tonics or a passing I6/4 between two subdominants. All these weak 6/4 chords – if they are major or minor triads – are smooth, unimpressive and lacking an underscored conflict. Paradoxically, occasionally we come across arpeggiated and passing six-fours on a stronger metrical position, but even then they fail to impress the listener with their “dissonant” qualities.
> The case with the cadential 6/4 is different because of two factors that work in combination: metrical position and a genuine dominant follow-up. Last year we discussed this, and I am not trying to ignite that particular debate. My interpretation is that, in the cadential six-four, the functional duality is manifest to the utmost, and because the bass is dominant, it overcomes the tonic component by attracting its own overtones. The cadential six-four differs from genuine dominants with suspensions by the inability to produce an authentic resolution when placed directly before the tonic. Genuine dominants with suspensions never fail to produce an authentic resolution, even if their suspensions are not taken care of prior to the resolution into the tonic.
> As for possible unquestionable dissonant qualities of the perfect fourth per se, it is not I who should argue against that. It is those who claim that the inversion of a consonant interval may yield a dissonance, and the second inversion of a major or minor triad destroys the major/minor qualities and makes the triad dissonant – who should prove those assumptions! At best, I think that, once the forth is a perfect consonance, and at other times it is a simulated dissonance (feigned dissonance). By simply copying a concept from the strict contrapuntal style (when the sense of functional harmony was not fully crystallized yet) and pasting it into the tonal realm of the common practice period, one cannot provide a solid argumentation in the genuine dissonant qualities of this interesting phenomenon.
> Thus, I make a reprise by stating that it is wise to use cautiously the term “dissonant” when it comes to triads in second inversion. Weak 6/4 chords are hardly dissonant, and the cadential six-four’s strong functional conflict causes the fourth to sound as a feigned dissonance. We all know that this "dissonance" may not resolve in the way expected, and sometimes it may not resolve at all.
> Thank you,
> Dimitar Ninov
> Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
> School of Music
> Texas State University
> 601 University Drive
> San Marcos, Texas 78666

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