[Smt-talk] Popular Music, Harmonic Functionality, and More (was harmonics)

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Fri Jul 25 15:46:19 PDT 2014

Dear Colleagues,

While generally agreeing with Andrew, I would like to remind ourselves that popular music combines features from common practice period with some more unusual relationships which sound quite logical within the style and dissolve limited conceptions about musical syntax. 

Progressions in ascending perfect fifths (or descending fourths) have been used since the time of Bach, and musicians usually call this a plagal relationship. If this plagal connection falls on a place where a well-outlined musical gesture is bound to expire, it becomes a plagal cadence. On the other hand, if the last chord in such a progression is S, there is a plagal half-cadence. Rimsky Korsakov points out these features in his practical manual.  That some theorists have made a decision to ignore the plagal relationships with the tonic and - calling the S chords "predominants" - they warn their students "not to connect  predominant chords with the tonic" - is a regrettable  fact, which displays a mentality that contradicts what occasionally happens in the common practice period. In late Romantic music and in the 20th century music which stems from Classic-Romantic tradition, the S function is further emancipated and the plagal relationships  become something quite common. 

For example, functionally, there is no difference between I - IV - V- I, and I6 - #IIdim7 - IIm7 - V4/3 alt. - I.  Both progressions assert the T- S- D - T skeleton, the first one being a strong  root position assertion, and the second one being more subtle with its altered subdominant and dominant chords. However, from Schenkerian point of view, the former is an extended cadential progression, and the latter is nothing - just a tonic prolongation. In my view, such kind of blunt treatment of harmonic connections undermines the development of a refined sense of functional chromatic relationships; the sense which allows one to see and hear the underlying functional interaction behind various kinds of disguise and chromaticism.   By calling the second progression "a tonic prolongation", an analyst denies functional interaction within it because the bass does not leap around, and this denial forces him to hear only a tonic bass throughout the progression.  This practice eventually leads to describing as "tonic prolongation" everything which happens stepwise between two tonics. That a musician could actually modulate  through such "tonic prolongations"  and completely change the keys center via such "non functional, passing harmonies" may come as a surprise to our analyst.

With its free treatment of harmonic relationships and occasionally avoiding dominants which contain a leading tone, popular music contributed enormously to expanding the horizons of functional thinking, doing this primarily through simple triads!  I am  not even mentioning  Prokofiev and his contemporaries who indulged themselves in creating a fully chromatic major/minor tonality where everything is possible. But today, connections like bVII-I, or progressions like I - bIII - IV - I a quite common. Of course, with some appropriate melodic contour and rhythm, they are fully capable of outlining a tonality without the help of the leading tone.  This latter fact once more reminds us that the leading tone does not make a dominant function per se; it only sharpens it. 

Best regards,


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

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