[Smt-talk] Caution versus Generalization

Ildar Khannanov solfeggio7 at yahoo.com
Tue Aug 27 00:15:46 PDT 2013

Dear Dimitar,
excellent remarks on hues and  controversial nuances of dissonance, all based on a premise that there is functional hearing in place. But who, nowadays, has functional hearing and who would support functional ear training? Schenker seems to be able to override this whole tradition. His postulates do not come from immediate perception (e.g., rivalry between the bass and the real root in 6/4). The chord has to be dissonant because it is such according to the system of theoretical views of Schenker.
Dr. Ildar D. Khannanov
Peabody Conservatory
solfeggio7 at yahoo.com

 From: "Ninov, Dimitar N" <dn16 at txstate.edu>
To: "smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org" <smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org> 
Sent: Monday, August 26, 2013 3:50 PM
Subject: [Smt-talk] Caution versus Generalization

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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