The reader may find it surprising that, at the start of the 21st century, it is necessary to write a book about western tonal harmony, but such a book is needed simply because any serious assessment of the traditional theories of tonal syntax reveals a serious gap in the way that they account for chord progressions. My research shows that, once voice leading has been accounted for, there are interesting patterns in chord progressions, and that these create musical phrase structures that are similar to structures in language.
The purpose of this preface is to put this book into context, mainly for the reader who has some familiarity with the subject and wonders why this book is needed. The reader who wishes to get directly into the subject may proceed to Chapter 1.
Most conventional theories of structure in tonal music concentrate either totally on root progression patterns (Rameau, Riemann and Schoenberg) or totally on voice leading (Schenker). This book is the first to explain how root progression patterns and voice leading work together and how chord progressions create musical phrase structure in tonal (and tonally influenced) pieces of music. This has some similarities to the way that languages work. In languages, a set of syntaxes work together (phonetics, word morphology, sentence syntax etc). In both language and music, a combination of syntaxes produces a richer set of possibilities than one syntax can, on its own.
It is undeniable that an important part of our experience of tonal music is the way that harmony complements melody and the way that harmony gives structure to music. Chord syntax and voice leading syntax are well documented. What is missing is chord progression syntax and musical phrase syntax. Chord syntax or voice leading syntax alone are not sufficient to define the structure of tonal music. By chord progression syntax I mean the rules that define the patterns of root progression in tonal music, i.e. which chord progressions sound tonal as opposed to which do not sound tonal. When properly analysed, in conjunction with voice leading, it can be shown that chord progressions form clear patterns and that these patterns create musical phrase structures.
Historically, the main proponents of a syntax of chord progressions have been Rameau, Riemann and Schoenberg (but there are others). These will be discussed in a full thesis to be published. They failed either: because they merely categorised chords (for example Riemann's tonic, dominant and subdominant classification) or they just specified orders of priority for classes of root movement (rising fourth, falling fourth, rising third, etc.) (Rameau, Schoenberg, etc) without showing how these relate to musical phrase structures. There are also inconsistencies in all of these theories and they do not correspond well to actual musical practice. For instance, these theories fail to account properly for modulation and chromatic harmony. To merely categorise chords as tonic, dominant, etc, says nothing about the way chords follow on from each other or relate to musical phrases and therefore does not constitute a syntax. To analyse root progressions merely in terms of their relative frequencies also says nothing about what progressions are right in certain situations. Part of the problem is that these models do not properly address the importance of voice leading when analysing root progression patterns.
At the other extreme, Schenker tried to attribute all structure to voice leading, but this merely created a new set of problems. Heinrich Schenker's theory is based mostly on 16th century contrapuntal theory combined with a 'graphical' analytical system. Many musical analysts find Schenker's system very useful in diagramming their analytical insights, but there is a vast difference between a system which facilitates analysis and a model which adequately defines the syntax of tonal music. In any case, there is no agreement amongst theorists about whether it does this or even whether it is supposed to do this. An example of this is the way chord progressions are accounted for in Schenker's model. They are explained as arising from linear progressions in the bass part. However, this approach suggests that the progression I - III - V would be common just as the progression I - IV - V is common. This is certainly not the case and the ideas that theorists come up with to explain this away are unsatisfactory. I will include more on this topic in the full book.
Schenker made important insights into the way some patterns can be explained as prolongations of chords and about the importance of voice leading, and in the process, did address some of the weakness of traditional theory, but by focusing all his theory on a single syntax - voice leading, was not able to explain how chord progressions work or how phrase structures work.
Schenker's theory is dependent on the identification of long range voice leading. 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. Schenker's system is "normative" in the sense that it reduces all compositions to a fixed set of patterns. By doing this it does not bring out the individuality in each composition or highlight style differences. The full book will include a section summarising the differences between my theory and Schenker's view of tonality. Schenker assumes everything is down to voice leading, whereas my analyses indicate that, once voice leading patterns have been accounted for, it is possible to see the underlying root progression and musical phrase patterns so important to tonal music.
A further important issue is that, by focusing totally on 16th century counterpoint, Schenker's theory does not explain the differences in style between different periods of music. It is possible to follow the rules of good counterpoint, chord construction and voice leading and still produce music that does not sound 'tonal'. If you don't believe this then just listen to music written before 1600. Admittedly, this music uses 'modal' scales rather than the major/minor system, but most of the 'modes' are made similar (by musica ficta) to the major and minor keys at the cadences. So what is it that makes tonal music sound so different from modal music? My research shows there are historical differences in the use of chord progressions.
When patterns in chord progressions are analysed across different periods of music there is a marked historical shift in the chord progressions patterns (what I call polarisation) in the change from modality to tonality. I will show this change of polarisation graphically in the full thesis when published.
The analysis of chord progressions that I have carried out over a large number of pieces of tonal and tonally related pieces, indicates that once the surface voice leading patterns have been addressed, there are clear patterns in the underlying chord progressions and that there is a relationship between these patterns and musical phrases. See the Full Analysis Chapter for two examples.
The analyses carried out so far have focused mainly on common practice tonal pieces and 20th century popular music. Included is a brief appendix covering a selection of related popular music topics. I hope to include some analyses of other 20th century music in the full book.
One criticism often made of analytical methods or syntaxes of music is that the results merely depend on the chosen segmentation of the music. The criticism is that the way the music is divided up can determine, for instance, which note combinations are considered to be significant and which non-significant. The approach taken here is to carry out the segmentation into chords by applying only well established traditional principles of voice leading (or more correctly "divisions") and not according to any method that only seeks "desired" results.
Consequentially, there is nothing "normative" in the analytic approaches taken here. The analyses of voice leading and root progression patterns are made in as open a way as possible to uncover the patterns in the music itself. There is no attempt to reduce everything to one or two predetermined patterns. (Such as I - III - V - I, or I - IV - V- I, as in a Schenkerian analysis or tonic, dominant and subdominant functions as in a Riemannian analysis) nor are decisions made in the analysis process just to prove any theoretical point. Only by taking such an open approach is it possible to uncover what is in the music itself. For instance, this approach shows whether the music is classically tonal, modal or some variation of these. Taking such an approach also helps to identify what it is in the patterns in the music that contributes to the style and the mood of the music.
The best theory is the theory which gives the simplest and best description of all the phenomena observed. It accounts for all the patterns that normally occur and excludes those that do not normally occur. I hope to show during the course of this website and in the book that this theory of chord progressions best fits these criteria. I will show how, once voice leading patterns have been accounted for, root progressions show discernible patterns that create a variety of musical phrase structures similar to the way that natural language grammars create a variety of sentence structures.