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Fair warning: this post might get a bit technical. I really like thinking about music theory, but I don't know very many people I can discuss it with. Some time back, I came across the following website, which really changed the way I think about harmony and its relation to musical structure (we're talking mostly tonal CPP music). I'm wondering whether anyone else has seen this before, or is interested in taking a look at it.

The site is www.harmony.org.uk by Tom Sutcliffe. It outlines a thesis he has developed (and a corresponding unfinished ebook, Syntactic Structures in Music) which loosely compares musical phrases to linguistic phrases, and shows how they are built up from two distinct types of harmony, which he calls static and dynamic harmony. It's based on a root progression analysis, and also incorporates some ideas from Schenker. At the very least, it's worth reading the Preface and Chapters 1 and 2 in the book to get the basic gist of the theory. You could also read through the outline thesis to see a sample analysis, and how the idea was developed.

Here's my attempt to summarize his theory:

First, the harmonic analysis proceeds in a fairly standard manner:

- Reduce the music to it's harmonic outline by stripping out non-chord tones (which arise from voice leading effects), and chords which are produced from non-chord tones (non-functional chords). For example, cadential 6-4 chords are formed from appoggiaturas, so they would be non-functional. He attempts to be very specific about what is non-functional.

- Categorize the motion of the roots of the resulting chords in terms rising and falling diatonic intervals (e.g. rising fourth, falling third). Because chord progressions are chiefly a diatonic phenomenon, the quality of the interval is not considered (e.g. major vs minor third). This means there are only a total of 6 possible progressions.

- The quality of the chord (major, minor, diminished, 7ths, 9ths, etc...) is also ignored. Only the root progression is analyzed.

Several observations were made from this analysis:

- Sometimes root progressions come in "pairs" of opposite types (e.g. a falling fourth followed by a rising fourth), while other progressions are unpaired.

- These two types of progressions (paired and unpaired) have a strong tendency to "cluster" with others of the same type. That is, paired progressions are often adjacent to other paired progressions, and unpaired progressions are almost always adjacent to other unpaired progressions.

This clustering allows us to segment the music, and suggests that music is built out of two distinct types of harmony:

- "Static Harmony" - sections consisting of paired progressions which oscillate around a central chord (usually the tonic, though dominant could also be used).

- "Dynamic Harmony" - sections consisting of unpaired progressions which have a stronger sense of forward harmonic motion.

A few additional observations can be made:

- Statistically, the progressions used in Dynamic Harmony have become polarized, such that they consist almost entirely of the following three progressions, which he names after greek letters:

- "Alpha" (α) - A rising 4th. By far the most common (e.g. ii-V and V-I).

- "Beta" (β) - A falling 3rd (e.g. I-vi).

- "Gamma" (γ) - A rising 2nd (e.g. IV-V).

- The remaining 3 progressions are much rarer, and are named after their inverse, followed by a prime symbol (e.g. a rising third would be a beta-prime (β') progression).

- Musical phrases (sections delimited by cadences) tend, in general, to follow some variation of the following pattern: begin with static harmony, followed by dynamic harmony, and ending in a cadence.

He then compares musical phrases to linguistic phrases, and postulates that static and dynamic harmony, and cadences are the syntactic "building blocks" of musical phrases, much like subject and predicate are the building blocks of linguistic phrases. Of course, the book goes into greater detail.

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Hmm, to be honest it seems a further dilution of Schenker and his discussion of root motion and the common and uncommon types of long range (as well as short term) modulations can be found in a chapter from Aldwell & Schachter's Harmony and Voice Leading, see chapter on Diatonic Modulation and the section Moidulation, Large-Scale Motion and Form. As this is a textbook aims to provide only an overview of common practice harmony the text does not go very in-depth into this subject but provides good examples. Seems the author is taking these ideas and correlating them to a specific area of linguistics.

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Sorry for not getting back to this earlier - I've been out of town for a while. Thanks for the book recommendation! Maybe I'll have to see if I can find a copy somewhere.

While he borrows from Schenker, I don't know if I'd call it a dilution. From what I remember reading about Schenker (which is likely incomplete and poorly remembered) I don't recall much about chord progressions or harmonic analysis in general, aside from seeing the bass as elaboration of the I-V-I structure (or technically, scale degrees 1-5-1). I also seem to recall Schenkerian analysis being more interested in looking at an entire piece, for "long-range" voice leading patterns within the structure of the entire piece, rather than looking at how music is assembled from individual phrases. As Sutcliffe says in his Preface:

One of the main complaints against Schenkerian analysis is that it is necessary to look for long range voice leading patterns when you cannot be sure that they are really there, and that it is necessary to choose notes that fit Schenker's theory rather than using Schenker to uncover what is in the music.

I remember having this same complaint when I came across Schenker.

The linguistic correlation is fairly brief (mostly mentioned in the introduction) and is used by way of analogy. Just as sentences are assembled from various components (subject and predicate), which can further be broken into various phrases and clauses, his analysis shows how musical phrases are assembled from components (static and dynamic harmony) which can be further broken into various chord progressions, prolongations, and cadences, and further decorated with voice leading effects. The later aren't exactly *new* ideas, but the static/dynamic distinction he uses provides the "glue" between those lower level structures, and the formation of complete phrases from them.

(I also think it would be fascinating to see whether these syntactic concepts would aid a generative music program.)

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Yeah your compliant about Schenker's method is quite valid and has been echoed by many more. Check the book out because it goes beyond the I-V-I long term planning, it discusses other harmonic longrange plans but just says fro the classical and romantic periods I-V-I was one of the most common ones.

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  • 8 months later...

It is characteristic to attempts to improve established music theory that they lean on philosophy theories (J.Rameau, H.Riemann, P.Westergaard) or other analogous branches of science (e.g. linguistic as T.Suttcliff). Of course, it is not bad to draw ideas from other branches but that is made instead attraction of results about sound sensation from experimental sciences as physiology and psychology although amount of such results increases gradually. In principle music theorists always used the same method: parse of scores of famous music works. Clearly, this method is subjective and, naturally,.different theorists arrive to different theories, so H.Riemann considered chord progression as necessary part of music theory and H.Schenker didn't. In such way T.Suttclif saw in the same works static and dynamic harmonies. Most likely this observation is correct: initial simple part of music work determines system of coordinates for more complex following events. Thus introduction of static and dynamic harmonies may be contribution in the theory of chord progressions. However the chord progressions is method of composition which was derived by Rameau from preceding music practice and hence in this practice weren't used. Further, J.S.Bach and following most important composers Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovski doesn't use it. Hence most eminent music works were created without this method. H.Schenker wrote in his work „Rameau or Beethoven“:

„That is the extent of the conflict which existed between the masterwork and theory. In the former horizontal considerations predominated, while in the latter the vertical element was uppermost. Likewise in accordance with the will of Nature—as if art was destined to be led to an impasse—came the paralytic standstill of human mediocrity, as a curse of its perennially-inherent inclination to mechanize its very being. Instead of creating substance out of the live source of an idea, the average person absorbs ideas handed down to him only mechanistically.“

The method of chord progressions arose thank to developed since 14 century key music instruments but basis of these instrument was previous -mechanical oscillations of .elastic body or air pillar. Now the possibilities of technique are incomparable increased but music theory didn't altered essentially. I like to think that now is actual the creations of new composition methods which must combine simplicity to obtain good results and possibility to obtain distinguished ones. Such system must be based on scientific knowledges about music perception.

Yuri Vilenkin

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