Dissertation Diary 2016-02-18

Oof. What I thought last week was run of the mill, get over it in a day, head-cold turned out to be a week long exhausting fever virus running thru the music school right now. That really screwed up my schedule for teaching and writing, but I don’t think I’m behind schedule yet!

I did manage to read a great article this week (to be be published this fall) by one of my committee members, and had inspiration strike in the middle of the night. I feel better about where the second half of chapter four is going. It’s not done yet, but it’s definitely going in the right direction now.

I hope to have time and energy next week to finish diagrams and address the edits my advisor gave me so I can turn in another draft.

Here’s the updated opening to 4.2 (before the examples start happening):


The 20th Century is not typically known for its Functional Tonal Harmony. However, through the 20th Century there was plenty of music being written in multivariate styles – including some that are more tonal than not. I am primarily interested in “pop” music for the purposes of this section, but there may be other examples of “art” music that fits these harmonic ideas as well. I feel that is important to be able to discuss pop music functionally because it is not always that different from our conception of the classical canon, and it is an important body of repertoire for our students.

Throughout this section, I will use “modern pop” to mean commercial music after WWII – for the most part – and “traditional tonal” to mean CCP era harmony and function. Some of the modern pop sound is based on different modal inflections, but I do not find it so thoroughly and generically modal enough to call it “modal pop.” Also, I will be playing off the idea that the chords are the grundgestalt of any given piece. This is not always the case,[1] but much of the time the common thread between different versions or covers of a song are the chords.[2]

Having chords other than so ti re leading to tonic was a major stumbling block for me using Functional Analysis with pop music, because D meant T was coming, but it also meant specific notes. I struggled for sometime with a way to describe chords I heard as moving to tonic, but yet not dominant, that was easy to read and understand and no more complicated than the rest of the system. Then I discovered Nobile and Doll.[3] These two recent pop scholars are talking about harmony and function in pop or rock music, and have some very helpful insights as to how to describe function.

Up to this point we have not spoken in detail of what / how to define function theoretically – only practically, aurally, by cadence (at the beginning of chapter 3).[4] Drew Nobile offers three different theoretical versions of function in his upcoming article in jmt. These are Function as Category – which is function by chord identity, or the intrinsic notes, or voice leading; Function as Progression – function as defined by what follows what, such as predominant is what it is because it is followed by dominant; and finally Function as Syntax – function as defined by context, usually a combination of the context of a key, or of a form.
Our earlier definition using cadence most closely/ ideally follows the syntax definition (as you will see in a moment), but our aural identification of function depends somewhat on all three types. When we hear the leading tone resolve, or we identify specific notes as being likely markers of a given function, then it is category. When we hear V follow IV in progression, or I follow V, then Progression. When we understand dominant and tonic in context of cadence, phrase, form, and key, it is Syntax. [This is interesting, because we define function in context, but we also define the context via the function.]

In CPP these different modes of function tend to reinforce each other. In other genres, that is not always the case. For cases where we wish to stretch the limits of Functional Analysis, the syntax definition helps us the most, and I find it to be most aurally salient. In pop music, even when traditional tonal harmony is not in play, we can still identify a feeling of function, of stability versus instability and the desire to resolve.[5]
For syntax purposes, it is most useful to divorce the pitch labeling from the function label. If you were to be concentrating only on analysis to show syntax function, a different system may be needed to show what pitches are present. However, since Functional Analysis is designed to show both pitch and function simultaneously,[6] which can be an advantage in CPP music where these identities reinforce the syntax, we must stretch Functional Analysis somewhat to use it when analyzing music where pitch and syntax are not equivalent.

Since increasingly more students are more familiar with pop music than with tonal music when they begin Music Theory Core programs, being able to demonstrate function with music with which they are familiar is important to help them learn as well as to draw them into the idea of analysis and present them with opportunities for inquiry relevant to their interests.

The first idea of syntax based function is that there can be more than one pre-tonic chord.[7] No more is it only ti that can pull to do, but depending on the tonal or formal context, other pitches or chords may be more successful in implying the oncoming tonic. Any chord that gives the aural impression of leading to tonic can function as a pre-tonic chord. Some rationale for a few of the more common options follow.

Different influences lead pop music to use different chords for a pre-tonic chord. These relatives are sometimes based on old church modes (dorian etc.) or pentatonic ideas (where do, re, mi, so, la as the entire scale) and this can change which pitch feels like the leading tone – from ti to te, la, or le, depending on availability in a given collection. These pitches allow pre-tonic chords other than our familiar so-ti based dominant to pull to tonic.

[1] Nobile, Spectrum.

[2] Biamonte. Nobile finds differently.


[4] Page number from ch 3.

[5] Milo May 10, various conversations with studnets.

[6] Chapter 2.

[7] Doll, Nobile.

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