[Smt-talk] Criteria for Old and New

Ildar Khannanov solfeggio7 at yahoo.com
Mon Mar 4 21:17:29 PST 2013

Dear Dimitar and the List,
I think that Schenker's being always new is the reflection of the fact that his theory is an anachronism. His theory has never been contemporary to any other theory, has never been a part of any larger project, and has never followed any previous theory. He has rejected Zarlino, Rameau, and Riemann. He did not like his own school's tradition of Sechter (there are some quite mean footnotes on this subject in his writings). He did not consider Greeks as legitimate theorists. All that rendered his theory eternallly youthful.
Ildar KhannanovPeabody Conservatorysolfeggio7 at yahoo.com

--- On Sun, 3/3/13, Ninov, Dimitar N <dn16 at txstate.edu> wrote:

From: Ninov, Dimitar N <dn16 at txstate.edu>
Subject: [Smt-talk] Criteria for Old and New
To: "smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org" <smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org>
Date: Sunday, March 3, 2013, 10:19 PM

Criteria for Old and New

Over the years, I have come across statements qualifying Walter Piston’s book of harmony as old, because it has been published in 1941. Some musicians also seem to consider archaic Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony (1911) and his “Structural Functions of Harmony” (published eight years after his death, in 1959), although I doubt if the average theory instructor really understands the premises of Schoenberg’s tireless and unorthodox mind.

Yet Heinrich Schenker had died six year before the publication of Piston’s harmony and no one referred to any of his books as “old”, although he publish his harmony book in 1906, 35 years before Walter Piston’s book. 

The question of what is old and what is new is worth tackling, but it is even more interesting to ask: who decides that, and on what grounds? 

I like all of the above mentioned texts as original and interesting readings and, although I could make a list of what personally bothers me in each one, I do not think that recently published books on tonal harmony are in any manner more interesting (except for their illustrations and colored schemes) or deeper in analytical terms. I regard many of those books as an attempt to arrange a puzzle in a student’s mind whose pieces are spread among the three fundamental disciplines of harmony, counterpoint, and musical form. Of course, such a puzzle cannot be arranged by picking topics from each discipline and teaching them in one or two class sessions.

What is old and what is new? Who decides that? On what grounds? 

I think there is no single answer to that, but there seems to be a solid reason to think that a reigning analytical system has turned into litmus for right and wrong, pure and sinful, contemporary and outdated. It has become a kind of “border patrol” to which you must show your analytical passport or stay out. It has grown into a platform of approval or disapproval of papers, textbooks, discussions, mentalities, and (yes) relationships. How does this sound in a theoretical space that is supposed to stay open for new ideas, even if they do not stem from a reigning mother?

A few years ago I was advised by an eminent scholar that “the concept of altered subdominant chords does not seem to be in pace with contemporary thinking”. Oho, said I to myself, so there is a united contemporary thinking? Just like a united front? What a great argument to reject an idea! Before I dared pronounce "altered subdominants" I should have sought an approval from the Omnipresent Contemporary Thinking! Poor Hans Tischler...he did not know that.

If I turn terribly wrong on my guessing about the litmus, I would be the happiest musician in the world. Meanwhile, I invite colleagues to share their opinion on what is old, what is new, who decides so, and why.

Thank you,


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