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Explaining Tonality

Explaining Tonality: Schenkerian Theory and Beyond

Matthew Brown
Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 315
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  • Book Info
    Explaining Tonality
    Book Description:

    A wide range of music -- from Bach to Mozart and Brahms -- is marked by its use of some form of what is generally called "tonality": the tendency of music to focus melodically on some stable pitch or tonic and for its harmony to use functional triads. Yet few terms in music theory are more enigmatic than that seemingly simple word "tonality." Matthew Brown's Explaining Tonality: Schenkerian Theory and Beyond considers a number of disparate ways in which functional tonality has been understood. In particular, it focuses on the comprehensive theory developed by Heinrich Schenker in his monumental three-part treatise Neue musikalische Theorien und Phantasien (1906-1935). Schenker systematically investigated the ways in which lines and chords behave both locally within individual tonal phrases and globally across entire compositions. Explaining Tonality shows why Schenker was able to elucidate tonal relationships so successfully and the many advantages that his explanations have over those of his rivals. In addition, it proposes some ways in which Schenker's approach can be extended to tonal features in works from before Bach (such as Monteverdi) and after Brahms (such as Debussy, Stravinsky, and much popular music of today). Along the way, the book explores six methodological criteria that help in building, testing, and evaluating a plausible theory of tonality or, indeed, any other musical phenomenon: accuracy, scope, fruitfulness, consistency, simplicity, and coherence. It reveals how understanding the tonality of a piece can shed light on other aspects of musical composition. And, in conclusion, it describes some ways in which Schenkerian theory might fruitfully develop in the future. Matthew Brown is Professor of Music Theory at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, and author of Debussy's "Ibéria" (Oxford University Press).

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-653-0
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Figures
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xx)
  5. Introduction. Theoretical and Meta-Theoretical Issues
    (pp. 1-24)

    What should we expect from a successful theory of tonality? Why should we prefer one theory of tonality over another? To what extent do theories of tonality pose the same methodological problems as theories in other domains? Although these are surely basic questions for any music theorist to ask, they are by no means easy ones to answer. In part, the difficulties stem from the fact that the term ‘tonality’ has come to mean different things to different people; as mentioned in the preface, some theorists use it very generally to denote music that centers on a stable pitch or...

  6. 1 Schenker and the Quest for Accuracy
    (pp. 25-65)

    Of all epistemic values, none is more important to the music theorist than the quest for accuracy. Whether formulating concepts, developing explanatory laws, or devising effective procedures, music theorists always try to provide accurate accounts of the music they are analyzing. If their methods fall short, then they will try to devise new concepts, laws, and procedures that fulfill these expectations. And so it was for Heinrich Schenker. He began from the simple observation that the laws of strict counterpoint (or Der strenge Satz ) are not accurate enough to explain the richness of functional tonality (orDer freie Satz)....

  7. 2 Semper idem sed non eodem modo
    (pp. 66-98)

    In the previous chapter, we saw how Schenker’s concern for accuracy motivated him to refine the traditional laws of strict counterpoint and functional harmony; he did so by constraining the laws of counterpoint harmonically and by grounding the laws of harmony contrapuntally. If Schenker’s only contribution to music theory had been to devise more accurate laws of tonal voice leading and harmony, then his place in music history would have been assured. After all, these new laws overcome technical problems that had perplexed theorists for several centuries. But Schenker took another crucial step: he reformulated his new laws in a...

  8. 3 What Price Consistency?
    (pp. 99-139)

    There can be little doubt that music theorists value consistency as much as any epistemic value. The reasons for this are clear enough. Claiming that something and its opposite are both true creates difficulties in making predictions; though prediction may not be the sole purpose of scientific inquiry, it is always the bottom line. To quote Quine: “[Prediction] is what gives science its empirical content, its link with nature. It is what makes the difference between science, however high flown and imaginative, and sheer fancy.”¹ When we confirm a theory, we do so through “the verification of its predictions.”² The...

  9. 4 Schenker and “The Myth of Scales”
    (pp. 140-170)

    “My [theory] shows that the art of music is much simpler than present-day [theories] would have it appear.”¹ For anyone readingDer freie Satz, this statement sticks out like a sore thumb. Schenker’s intricate analyses often make pieces look anything but simple; at times they seem even more complex than the scores themselves. And yet, there can be no doubt that Schenker meant what he said; he expressed the same sentiment in various ways on other occasions. When discussing the structure of prototypicalcantus firmiinKontrapunkt I, for example, Schenker defended the quest for simplicity on ethical grounds, claiming...

  10. 5 “Pleasure is the Law”
    (pp. 171-208)

    Although music theorists aim to make their theories as accurate, broad, consistent, and simple as possible, they are also keen to apply them to situations or phenomena for which those theories were not originally intended. By casting the empirical net ever wider, theorists can not only test the limits of their work, but they can also open up new avenues of research. Such extensions are signs of the theory’s fruitfulness. And so it is for Schenkerians. There would seem to be two main ways in which Schenkerians can achieve these goals. First, they can apply their methods to music that...

  11. 6 Renaturalizing Schenkerian Theory
    (pp. 209-233)

    Ever since the birth of their discipline, music theorists have endeavored not only to find specific concepts, laws, and procedures to explain musical phenomena, but also to connect them with concepts, laws, and procedures in other domains. This process is known as naturalizing music theory.¹ The reasons for undertaking such a task are clear enough; naturalizing music theory allows us to see how our knowledge of music coheres with our knowledge in other domains. We want our theories to be coherent because we know that our understanding of music is shaped by many external factors. Furthermore, as we saw in...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 234-238)

    In his well-known essay “The Americanization of Heinrich Schenker,” William Rothstein claims that, however they choose to regard their work, Schenkerians must eventually meet “the challenge posed by the ‘scientific’ theorists.”¹ During the course of this book, we have seen one way in which this challenge might be met. We have seen that Schenkerian theory is explanatory insofar as it explainswhycertain notes appear in particular tonal contexts,whythese notes behave in some ways and not in others, andhowwe can actually generate specific tonal relationships. It does so by invoking an appropriate set of concepts and...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 239-266)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 267-280)
  15. Index
    (pp. 281-293)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 294-298)