[Smt-talk] How Terminology Shapes Functional Thinking

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Sun Sep 1 21:39:21 PDT 2013

Dear Nicholas and all Colleagues,

The repudiation of the subdominant function is evident from its absence from a background Schenkerian graph – the forth scale degree does not exist in the bass line of the ursatz. Therefore, there is a discrepancy between the most typical harmonic order of a tonal passage (T-S-D-T) and the Schenkerian background analysis which does not reflect this order.

Some of us may remember the last year’s debate about the meanings of the terms “subdominant “ and “predominant”, about tonal paradigm versus harmonic syntax, etc. I am not plunging into this heat again. Instead, allow me to illustrate how the meaning of the term pre-dominant has reshaped the functional thinking of today’s main stream music theorist to the point of clipping their syntactical choices. All this damage is eventually transferred onto undergraduate and graduate students.

The term “predominant” came in circulation some decades ago, mostly in the USA, under the influence of American writers influenced by Schenker. Because older American books of classical harmony used the term “subdominant”, the authors of the new age decided to gradually push this name out of circulation and replace it with the new one.  But the attempt to downgrade the subdominant function to nothing more than a simple preparation of dominant harmony eventually undermined functional thinking and the understanding of harmonic syntax.

A great damage has been triggered by the literal interpretation of the word “predominant”. Since it strongly suggests that the sole task of the chords built on degrees  4 and 2 consists in appearing before a dominant chord, a conventional (let me spare a harsher adjective) teacher assumes that the so-called pre-dominant chords are not supposed to connect the tonic triad or, at least, that this type of connection is unnatural.  This false assumption is formulated in a message sent to me by an anonymous colleague a year ago. The message contains the following passage:

“…then you get predominant moving to tonic, which is odd and hard to explain (especially to undergraduates!).”

“Odd and hard to explain!” It is hard to believe that a teacher with a PhD in theory would write such a statement! Yet I have been astounded numerous times by similar declarations which betray the lack of connection between a teacher’s mentality and the world of real music.  Such kinds of instructors seem to have made the choice of putting all their trust (once and for all) into inflexible textbook definitions, rather than of exploring musical examples and complementing their knowledge through first-hand experience. Some of these colleagues seem to be afraid of opposing “the official line of the Party” and move with the flow, although something deeply inside them whispers in their ear to stand up against all kinds of rigidity and think for themselves…

Of course, the music of the common practice period is abundant with S-T connections, which do not have to fall on a cadential moment to be recognized as plagal relationships. I will only list the first several cases that came instantly to my mind, and they all come from Mozart sonatas I have played:

G major, K283, I, mm.5-6
F major, K. 332, I, mm. 9-10
C major (Facile) K. 545, I, mm. 5-6
C major, K. 279, I, m.2
C major, K. 309, I, mm.18-19

The above cases only represent scratching of the surface in the first movements of several Mozart sonatas. This is only a pond, and you can imagine what the ocean is holding, should we decide to tap on more works, more authors, more epochs…

After the striking realization that the S–T connection is something natural for the common practice period, let me repeat the strange declaration cited above:

“…then you get predominant moving to tonic, which is odd and hard to explain (especially to undergraduates!).”

If a teacher does not care to explore the works of the great masters, but is content with teaching from a textbook alone, he/she looses their sense of relating written theory with musical practice. Who suffers? The students, who are penalized if they occasionally connect S with T. It is explained to them that a PD-T connection does not represent a progression and violates the harmonic syntax, unless…it is comes in the form of an Amen post-cadential affirmation! 

Poor Mozart…had he anticipated the advent of Schenkerian wisdom, he would have never dared use an S-T liaison! Poor Dvorjak with his plagal endings of whole passages. Poor Holst, to end up a theme with II6-I instead of inviting the dominant in between. Poor Rimksy Korsakov – to waste his time to explain plagal cadences with diatonic and altered subominants in his book of harmony. 

This is how the replacement of “subdominant” with “predominant” has triggered a process of mental re-programming that resulted in the exclusion of natural progressions from the “officially accepted harmonic order”. Had the term S (lower dominant) remained in use, it would have constantly reminded the user about its behavior toward the tonal center (as all other functions are described in connection to the tonic), thus keeping the theoretical door open for both S-D and S-T progressions.

Thank you, and best regards,


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

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