chord progressions in tonal music

 

The following list includes answers to questions from readers of the site.

Why was this web site set up?

What is on it?

How will this web site be used?

What is special about this theory?

What is the history of such ideas?

How has this new theory come about?

Who is this site for?

Do all musical phrases start with static harmony and end with dynamic harmony?

Why isn't the falling second progression included as one of the "strong" chord progressions?

Is there a difference between chord progressions in classical music and in popular music?

Will you add a section on jazz harmony at some point?

Does the theory work for late romantic composers such as Wagner?

Does the polarisation of chord progressions apply to modal music?

How can I contact the author?

What feedback has been received?

 

Why was this web site set up?

This site has been set up as a precursor to publishing and to support the book Syntactic Structures in Music. This presents a new theory that demonstrates, (once voice leading patterns have been accounted for), how chord progressions work in tonal music and how these create musical phrase structures that are similar, in ways, to natural language structures. I want to get more feedback on the contents and format before publication in book form.

 

What is on it?

As well as a summary of the book Syntactic Structures in Music, the site contains animated demonstrations and a practical example of how the theory can be used to harmonise a melody. The site includes a section on the relevance of the theory to pop and rock music. The Full Analysis Chapter includes a full analysis which shows the interaction between voice leading syntax, root progression syntax and musical phrase syntax as well as giving some information on the motivic patterns in the piece.

 

How will this web site be used?

By creating this web site I hope to:

  • publish my ideas
  • illustrate the theory by full musical analyses and animated demonstrations
  • help students of musical theory in their understanding of the subject
  • convince academics of the value of the theory by publishing a full thesis outside of this website
  • enable people to review the contents of the book
  • get feedback on the ideas and book
  • use the feedback to improve the writing and layout of the book

 

What is special about this theory?

Arising out of original analyses of root progression patterns in a large sample of tonal music, this web site represents a theory that explains (once voice leading patterns have been accounted for) how chord progressions work in tonal music (and to some extent modal music) and demonstrates how these chord progressions create musical phrase structures that are similar, in ways, to natural language structures. This is the only book and website which successfully explain the relationships between voice leading, root progression syntax and phrase structures in music. These relationships are demonstrated in the Example Analyses Chapter.

 

What is the history of such ideas?

Up to the present time, the predominant theories in tonal music have been those of Rameau (1683 - 1764), Schoenberg (1874 - 1951) and Schenker (1868 - 1935). Each of these theorists, in his turn explains something about the way tonal music is structured. Rameau explains vertical harmonic formations; Schoenberg, the relationships between chords and key structures and Schenker the role of counterpoint in creating musical structure. However, none of these theorists fully explains the syntax of chord progressions or musical phrases or the relationship between voice leading and root progression patterns. For general information about the role of syntax in tonal music please refer to the notes on the connection with linguistics in Chapter 1 of the book section.

Some writers such as Weber, Schoenberg, McHose and Piston have described chord progressions by tables which show the probabilities of chords on each degree of the musical scale moving to chords on other degrees of the musical scale. However, there are problem with all of these tables and there is something unsatisfactory about a theory which is just a tabular description of observed data. A theory is meant to tell you something about underlying patterns. Also, these tables describe chord progressions regardless of the position of the chord in the musical phrase and they don't account for aspects of harmony such as chromatic chords or modulation.

There have been attempts by theorists such as Lerdahl and Jackendoff (A Generative Theory of Music) and others to produce a theory based on linguistic analogues. David Cope (Experiments in Musical Intelligence) uses linguistic paradigms to program computers to compose music in the styles of various composers. None of these explains how chord progressions work in the context of musical phrases and so do not offer theories of the syntax of tonal music.

I plan to expand this discussion in the final book. See also the bibliography and web links section on this site.

The ideas presented on this website and in the book Syntactic Structures in Music explains the syntax of chord progressions in tonal music (and to some extent modal music).

 

How has this new theory come about?

The author's approach has been to evaluate musical data in a systematic way. The conclusions are that, once voice leading patterns have been accounted for, the analysis shows patterns in chord progressions in tonal music (and to some extent modal music) and demonstrates how these create musical phrase structures that are similar, in ways, to natural language structures. You can see example of these structures in the Example Analyses Chapter. I am currently in the process of producing a full thesis which will explain the full evidence for the theory.

The common patterns observed across this large sample of tonal (and tonally related) music forms the basis of the theory presented. Some conclusions about modal popular music have been summarised in the Appendix on Popular Music.

 

Who is this site for?

This site and Syntactic Structures in Music should be of interest to three groups of reader:

  1. The reader who has a basic understanding of musical theory. He or she should have no difficulty in following the ideas and examples. This type of reader would normally be familiar with basic harmonic notation such as I, V7, IIc, A7, E minor etc. and be familiar with the names of musical intervals and scales. It is hoped that this type of reader will be able expand his or her understanding of how tonal music is structured. In this group, I would include: teachers of music; music students; performing musicians, (professional or amateur). Feedback received has been very positive and confirms that members of this group often have an interest in understanding how chord progressions work in tonal music. This group of readers should view the Animated Demos, followed by the Book Outline.

  2. The professional musical theorist or analyst. He or she should read this web site because it will give him or her a new tool to evaluate and use in the quest to attain a deeper understanding of the syntax of musical compositions. In addition to the sections mentioned above, these readers should also view the Example Analyses Chapter which demonstrates the results of the theory. A full Thesis is currently in preparation which summarises the evidence for the theory.

  3. The general reader who, interested in music, would like to know something about what gives music its internal logic and structure. This reader should be able to follow the Demonstrations and Book Outline at least in outline.

If you find this site interesting then please pass the address of this web site on to your friends and colleagues and make links to the site via any websites you have access to.

 

Do all musical phrases start with static harmony and end with dynamic harmony?

Just as there is one basic structure in language that is modified in various ways, there is similarly one standard structure in tonal music that is modified in certain ways.

The basic structure is: static harmony, dynamic harmony, cadence, as explained in Chapter 1 and shown in Demos 1 and 2.

This basic structure can be modified just as the basic sentence structure in language can be varied, i.e. as follows:

a) Short repeating pieces or lines of songs sometimes have only static harmony or only dynamic harmony (Followed by a cadence). The Extended Structures Chapter will include examples of these.

b) The individual components can be expanded (internally) as indicated in Chapter 5 and as shown in Demos 3 & 4.

c) In longer pieces, incomplete and complete structures can join to form larger complete structures. This is an important way of creating form. The Extended Structures Chapter will include examples of these.

 

Why isn't the falling second progression included as one of the "strong" chord progressions?

Any progression can be used in dynamic harmony. However, it is certainly the case that, in common practice tonal music, once voice leading patterns have been accounted for, the three "strong" chord progressions (alpha, beta, gamma) are used in almost exclusive preference to the remaining three progressions. This polarisation appears to be an essential component of tonal music that distinguishes it from older modal music (where the same preference is not in evidence). When the falling second progression is used it is usually associated with certain types of modulation (see Chapter 7) or, in reality, the result of voice leading in the form of an appoggiatura chord. See Chapter 3. Appoggiatura chord.

 

Is there a difference between chord progressions in classical music and in popular music?

A lot of popular music is tonal and therefore uses the same patterns as classical music. However, some popular music (folk influenced music and certain types of rock music) use modal scales and associated modal harmonies. These modal chord progressions differ in syntax from tonal chord progressions. Although, often, aspects of tonal phrase syntax are adopted. For more on modal harmony see:

Modal and 'Blues-modal' Harmony

For more on popular music in general, see Appendix A: Pop and Rock Music

 

Will you add a section on jazz harmony at some point?

The way harmony is used in jazz is a big subject in its own right.

I may include a little on the site about jazz harmony but a lot of what is already on the site can be applied to jazz, at least tonally based jazz. This is because a lot of jazz is based on improvisations of tonal popular songs. So that a lot of the voice leading and root progression patterns also apply to jazz. However, as in other popular music, when modal scales are used, there are some differences. These can be studied as important style variations from the usual tonal norms.

See section on popular music: Appendix A: Pop and Rock Music.

See a brief note re voice leading in jazz in the Voice Leading Appendix.

There are some references to jazz books and websites in the Bibliography.

 

Does the theory work for late romantic composers such as Wagner?

The current list of analyses includes works by Wagner, Richard Strauss and Mahler as examples of late romantic music.

Based on the works analysed, the theory works well for this type of music. This is because in order for the chromatic and tonal complexity to work, underlying syntactic structures need to be in place to support it. Otherwise we would not be able to make sense of what is going on.

Most conventional theories concentrate on key relationships or chord classification or voice leading only, so they miss these underlying root progression patterns and phrase structures. I may include a full analysis of a work from this period at a later stage.

 

Does the polarisation of chord progressions work for modal music?

The polarisation of chord progressions (i.e. the use of alpha, beta and gamma progressions in priority to the others) is something that is found in tonal music. This applies to most classical music in the tonal period and to a lot of popular music, but music prior to around 1650 and some 20th and 21st century popular music is based on modal scales and modal harmonies. The same degree of polarisation is not found in modal music. This represents a stylistic variation from tonal music. Other aspects of syntax, however, are often present - such as the way the musical phrases are structured.

There is some information about this at: Modal and 'Blues-modal' Harmony and more generally at Appendix A: Pop and Rock Music.

 

How can I contact the author?

If you find this web site of interest then please e-mail me your thoughts. Press here for my contact address. I use all such feedback to improve this site and Syntactic Structures in Music.

 

What feedback has been received?

Feedback received to date has been very positive. Where issues have been raised these have been answered by improving the wording and explanations on the website. The more frequently asked questions are included in the list above.

 

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