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On Teaching Cadence and Musical Form

Dear Colleagues,


As a result of ardent application of Schenkerian theories in the past 25-30 years, the traditional study of cadence in the US has undergone a radical revision, cutting ties with the traditional discussion of harmony and cadence, both in America and abroad.

      I feel sorry for those students who have been told that the only form of full cadence is the interaction of dominant and tonic in root position, and that everything else is a form of...tonic prolongation. Also, if the tonic is approached stepwise there is no cadence under any circumstances, but if the dominant is approached stepwise there may be a cadence...These students have been deprived from the opportunity to get acquainted with other concepts, to enjoy the beautiful spectrum of imperfect authentic cadences involving inverted dominants and tonics, as well as dominant substitutes. Besides, they will not know there is a plagal cadence and even a plagal half cadence (see Rimsky Korsakov's Practical Manual of Harmony written more that 120 years ago). Of course, the revision of harmonic function and cadence brings about a revision of harmony and musical form with some, in my view, devastating results.

      The good news is that musical literature empirically defies any rigid theory and postulate by offering a wide range of cases which belong to the routine language of composers and cannot be hidden or denied. I will give you three examples. 

      Contrary to the widespread claim that specific sentences (of Schoenberg) lack an interior cadence, a great number of excerpts display clear cadences in the end of a presentation phrase, and these cadences fully comply with the rigid terms of the "contemporary revisers of cadence". Three immediate example are:

      1) Mozart, sonata in C, K279, I, opening of main theme. Here not only the presentation phrase, but also the first basic idea itself ends with what my colleague and friend Bill Caplin would call "an extended cadential progression" - T6 - SII6 - D - T.

      2) Mozart, sonata in F, K332, I, beginning of development section. Another clear cadence at the end of the presentation phrase, this time a half cadence enhanced by the cadential 6/4. This gesture is introduced as early as in the basic idea, and is repeated at the end of the presentation. The whole structure is a hybrid between sentence and parallel period (presentation plus consequent). By the way, this is also a good example for those who claim that the cadential 6/4 "must not be introduced so early in the beginning of the musical thought". Here it is.

      3) Beethoven, sonata Op. 14/2, II, mm. 1-4. A basic two measure idea is repeated , and forms a presentation which ends with a half cadence. Again, even the first basic idea here ends with a clear half-cadence.

      Music examples such as those are not so rare - they belong to the most beautiful pages of music literature and represent an inseparable part of the routine language of great composers. Besides, all other numerous  examples which have interior cadences involving inverted T or D, will also be of great interest to those who do not abide by the "new concept of cadence".

      Concerning  the strange claim about the resolution of the cadential six-four into the dominant, reading: "The fourth over the bass in cad.6/4 must resolve down by a step, because it is dissonant." Of course, the fourth most typically moves down by a step, but the routine language of composers includes a great number of other treatments of the so-called "dissonant fourth", and one of those is the so-called "Marpurg Cadence" which is pretty frequent in music. It involves the soprano moving up by a step (do-re). Immediate example: Beethoven, sonata Op. 2/1, III Menuetto, mm1-14. Such examples are fairly frequent in the output of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Not to speak of the fact that the cadential 6/4 is occasionally rearranged, all of its upper voices leaping, sometimes occupies one or more measures and is freely arpeggiated and prolonged, especially in concertos. On top of that, the "sol-si" soprano contour above K6/4 - D will involve moving of the "dissonant" fourth upward in alto or tenor. In a Mozart example (sonata in G, K 283, I, m.15), the fourth leaps up a fourth to provide the seventh of the dominant chord. So much about what the "dissonant fourth" must do. It is obvious that composers all too frequently treat it as a chord tone which it is.

      With all of the above reflections I wanted to instigate a type of awareness in the community of music teachers which will allow them to open more to real music and stimulate their students to think creatively and critically. When I hear the sentence: "We have to teach our students the most typical things in part-writing first, and only then mention exceptions, if at all" – it becomes clear to me that the person who pronounces that does not make a difference between "exceptions" and routine musical language of the epoch which is indispensible. This lack of understanding  – along with the lack of enough observations of musical examples from the CCP – inevitable leads to ineffective and unprofessional  teaching which confuses the students and closes the door before their creativity and critical thinking.

      A  teacher cannot place the label "poor" on some phenomenon which makes sense in the CPP only because it occurs less frequently than another phenomenon. "Poor" and "less typical" are not equivalents, are they?



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  • 2 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
  • You should stick up for your own perspective Dimitar.  Why should teaching music theory involve conformity?  What does art have to do with conformity in the first place? Only a third rate composer would conform to academic protocol anyway.  The cadence is more importantly a concept and has many different possibilities and interpretations that do not necessarily follow "a rule" let a!one conform to Schenkar as the established absolute definition standardized by university/conservatory music education.  That and the fact that we live in the 21st century - not the 17th or 18th and composers of today have their own language for the concept of cadence.  Cadence is a generalization, not a specific.  Cadence is a resting point between musical phrases or the final phrase ending - that is the important aspect and function of cadence and larger than what any one historical theorist defines it as.  Furthermore cadences are defined and differ by the period of music involved.  Machaut used a different type of cadence than Mozart or Debussy.  What the music student should learn is "the function" of a cadence regardless of historical style.  

  • Dear Carson,

    Thank you for your message. It is namely because we live in the 21st century that we should approach music theory in a more open way, correcting  questionable and limiting formulas, definitions and postulates. You try to define a cadence as a resting point, but sometimes its last chord is a dissonant sonority or/and we have an elliptical event. Besides, the conventional definition of a musical phrase must also be revised to free the musical gesture from a mandatory harmonic closure, for there are phrases whose ending is not necessarily a cadence, and you can come across mono-functional phrases, although this is a more rare event. In my article "Basic Formal Structures in Music: A New Approach.” (Music Theory and Its Methods: Structures, Challenges, Directions (Methodology of Music Research, vol. 7), ed. by Denis Collins. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2013. pp. 179-208.) I offer a new definition of a musical phrase, "A well developed musical idea which is bound to expire at a point of division." Most frequently (but not exclusively) this point of division is provided by certain harmonic interaction, most typically - a cadence.

       This was just one point of suggestion how open and brave a contemporary music theorist has to be. Unfortunately, many colleagues feel content to repeat what has been written before them without showing any signs of what we usually call "critical reading" and "creativity". I guess the cosy waters of stereotype and subordination make it for a better survival...