CHAPTER 1 - Additional Notes
The Role of Syntax in Music
What is surprising about tonal music is that a scale made up of such
a few notes should be capable of such a large number, possibly infinite
variety, of melodies, harmonic structures, styles and varieties of music.
2. We know that in tonal music chords have to be constricted in certain ways. Discords are prepared and resolved according to given rules. Voices have to move in certain ways to avoid bad musical effects. The basic teaching of musical theory at all musical institutions acknowledges the way certain rules govern whether combinations of notes sound tonal or don't sound tonal. Why then, when discussing chord progressions should we deny that there may be rules governing what progressions produce correct tonally sounding music? Anyone who has tried to harmonise a melody will have found that some successions of harmonies sound tonal but others do not. Just following rules concerning chord structuring and voice leading is not sufficient to create a harmonisation that sounds right.
3. We know there are areas of music where rules are essential. An example
of this is the rules governing the system of tuning known as equal
temperament. This is has been, for over two hundred years, the generally
accepted method of tuning western instruments. Previous systems of tuning
only allowed modulation within a small range of closely related keys but
a system of equal tuning allows modulation to all 12 possible keys
equally effectively. Rather than restricting the possibilities, these
equal temperament rules substantially increased the number of usable keys
and the possible extent of modulation. The music of Wagner and Richard
Strauss would not have been possible without the imposition of equal temperament.
This is a clear example of how rules are utilised in music and how they
can extend the possibilities rather than restrict them.
Just as the grammar of a language has several components, the grammar of tonal music is made up of components. These can be described as:
Much has been written about a) and b), but there has never been an adequate analysis of the syntax of chord progressions. Some writers described chord progressions (or more accurately root progressions) in terms of tables of probabilities. However, these tables tell us nothing about the relationships between the chords themselves or between the chords and the musical phrase. I have included more on this topic in the full thesis currently being prepared.
A theory of the syntax of chord progressions should explain the way chords are assembled to make up a musical phrase.
In the discussion of the similarity between the syntactic structures in music and those in language it should not be assumed that language structures are replicated exactly in music. There is no equivalent in music of the noun and the verb etc. Different languages have different syntaxes so it would be strange if music exactly followed the syntax of a particular language. The structures in music parallel those in language by deploying the same devices as each language does in creating its own syntactic structures. For the purpose of this discussion I will refer to this as meta syntax as the connection is at a level beyond the surface syntax. This should be reasonably straight forward to understand as follows:
1. Language and Music grammars both involve a system of classifying their components
Systems of classification are used in many ways because they are a good
way of organising complexity. Objects classified together share some properties
whilst being independent in other ways.
2. The complexity of language requires structures which exist at three levels
The syntax of the sentence structure is made simpler by its organisation into three levels as follows:
By grouping words into phrases the number of rules governing the syntax
is less than would be the case if the relationship was directly between
the word and the sentence.
Tonal music also utilises a three level structure to construct its syntax. These levels are:
Some previous attempts at the syntax of music depend on a direct relationship between the phrase and the chord but satisfactory results can not be achieved with this lack of sophistication. A successful theory of musical syntax requires the identification of the intermediate level of structure between the musical phrase and the single chord. This intermediate level is the syntactic element which is a component identifiable by the change of state between static harmony and dynamic harmony.
3. In both language and music there is one basic structure which can be extended by combining complete and incomplete structures in various ways
We have seen from the discussion on language structures that additional phrases can be embedded within sentences and sentences can be combined to produce conjoined sentences. This increases the possible degrees of complexity whilst introducing a minimal number of additional rules.
It will be shown that similar processes exist in music whereby complete and incomplete phrases can be combined in ways that produce larger complete syntactic structures.
It is at this meta-syntax level that the similarity exists between music and language.
It is important to note that the theory discussed in this book is not
an attempt to impose a structure on music or to attempt to describe
music by the use of a metaphor. Some writers have done this, (see
history chapter). The problems of starting off with a preconceived
metaphor are clear. Metaphors work well where the patterns are well known.
A description in a more familiar area can aid understanding if the metaphor
represents a model similar to the concept being described. But to start
off with a metaphor and then try and find correlations is dangerous. How
do we know that the metaphor chosen is an inappropriate one? What if the
metaphor is close, but has aspects that are different to what is being
described? The arbitrary application of an inappropriate metaphor can
hide aspects of the true structures being described.
It is also important to note that the above comparisons of syntax in language and music should not be taken as a justification in itself for the ideas presented. It is made merely to help the reader more easily to understand the ideas. Justification is made purely on the basis of the analyses of data from musical scores.