Only On the Internet

Only On the Internet

File this one under “only on the internet”: My Better Half and I were looking over a textbook she’ll be using next semester. We noted that this book instructs students to analyze cadential 6-4 chords as tonic chords in second inversion, a gravely misguided message which—according to our core beliefs and values—hurts America: The cadential 6-4 is a dominant chord with a double suspension; its root is V, not I. That’s just how ordinary Minnesotans like us see things. It’s the kind of thing we spend hours in the classroom trying to convey to our students, so we were especially disheartened to see such an objectionable claim crop up in a textbook.

So I tweeted, tongue cheek-adjacent, that the only time it’s OK to burn books is if a theory textbook tells you that the root of a cadential 6-4 is I. Like, ha ha, right? He’s making a joke about music theory and biblioclasm. Two of the four people who read my tweets won’t get it, and—best case scenario—the other two will chuckle softly. However, shortly after I opened my beak to let this gem out into the world, my glib assertion vis à vis roots was called into question, and not by just anyone: by a performer whose stature in the world of new music is very high. When 17-year-olds from Shakopee step to me on this issue, I brush aside their objections with cavalier self-assuredness; a few vaguely Schenkerian dots and lines on a chalkboard are usually enough to convince them. But this dude owns three soprano chalumeaus, so when he begs to differ, I have to think twice.

I still maintain that a cadential 6-4 is a dominant with a double suspension. Nevertheless, this cyberencounter reminded me to maybe be a little more circumspect when trafficking in curricular items that are not self-evident. That two professionals might not see eye-to-eye on even as small (in the grand scheme) a matter as this one should be obvious, but at any rate I’m grateful for the bracing shot of perspective.

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10 thoughts on “Only On the Internet

  1. Jon

    Yes, I’ve encountered this controversy as well. Very similar in my mind to the fixed vs. movable Do argument in that everyone seems to feel very very strongly about it, highly respected musicians disagree vehemently, and most of the rest of the world couldn’t care less. I was very much in the dominant-with-double-suspension camp, until a very compelling anti-Schenker rant by a respected professor last fall forced me to reconsider everything about functional harmony…

  2. evan johnson

    Colin: If you ask me, you’re right, your accomplished interlocutor is wrong, and (assuming he is who I think he is, which I think he is) I will happily tell him so. So there.

  3. Scott

    Okay, I’ve not participated in such a debate before, but…

    Can’t we just say that it’s a collection of 3 pitch classes, with a specific one in the bass, that could be heard multiple ways depending on context and the listener and environmental factors and such? Why do we have to pin it down to one vs. the other?

  4. Colin Holter

    Why do we have to pin it down to one vs. the other?

    If we’ve agreed to call the chord a cadential 6-4, we’ve already narrowed the context down pretty thoroughly. It could be an important question for a performer to answer as he or she develops an interpretation – is the cadential 6-4 really I, or is the real resolution two (or more) chords later? At the very least I’d hope for the performer to have an informed opinion about it. I understand what you’re getting at, but I think you’d agree that viewing harmonic constructions in common-practice-era music as “collection[s] of [some number of] pitch classes” is ahistorical; it might provide for a compelling interpretation, but it also might steamroll over a lot of really important hierarchical distinctions.

    Jon: I certainly didn’t mean for this post to be a wholesale endorsement of Schenker, but to me the V w/ 2x sus argument holds water.

    Evan: Be sure to phrase it in a way that makes me sound as meek as possible!

    1. Terence O'Grady

      I agree that just referring to this chord as a collection of three pitch classes that could be heard multiple ways might “steamroll over a lot of really important hierarchical distinctions” and hardly serves the cause of explaining the “grammatical” functions within a tonal system. On the other hand, the textbook in question might be using the tonic six-four label as a sort of an early “introduction” to the chord, taking into account its apparent “1-3-5-ness” deriving from tonic. I would guess that the textbook in question at some point presents a number of examples that show that the vast majority of the time the chord actually functions like a dominant with a double suspension or something of that nature. We often provide students with an over simplified (yes, maybe even misleading) definition in the early stages just so we can later admit that we’ve over-simplified matters and that “real” music is often more nuanced than our textbook examples.

    2. Scott

      I didn’t really mean to refer to it as “pitch classes” out loud. I guess I just mean, different people clearly hear this moment in tonal music differently. I don’t understand what we’re arguing about. For some, it sounds like we hear it as a long suspension, for others it sounds like a variation on the tonic. I suspect that perception can be altered depending on the context of the music around it. If it’s such a long-standing argument, isn’t there a case to be made that suspended-ness vs. tonic-ness is in the eye of the beholder?

  5. Daniel Wolf

    I wouldn’t start burning any textbooks; you’ve just waded into one of the longest running controversies in music theory, whether the adversaries are Fux vs Rameau or Schenker vs Schönberg. The strong voice leading position (yours, alongside Fux and Schenker) is also closer to the way I think about things, but what does one think about some heterodox voice leading, as with (my personal favorite) Berlioz? And there are certainly plenty of fine musicians, maybe even a large majority, for whom chords are primary compositional objects and voice leading concerns only a consequence of chords, if that. In the end, I suspect tonal polyphonic music is often playing a game of oscillating or punning between the two interpretation, like that psychologists’ sketch of the lamp-which-is-also-a-rabbit. And music is not any less rich for this.

  6. pgblu

    I read your tweets, and for the record I was of the ‘chuckle softly’ category. A symbol is just a symbol. You still have to know/learn what it means in order for the symbol to be meaningful.

  7. Joseph Holbrooke

    I have no feeling about this either way, but I am very curious to hear some examples of the same music interpreted both ways. I wonder if you can hear the difference, and I wonder if anyone would agree on which one is which.


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