The Wonderful Month of May

May 31, 2016

This isn’t the post I promised, but I didn’t want to let the month of May pass without sharing my thoughts on a rather timely Schumann song, the first of his Dichterliebe cycle, “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” (“In the wonderful month of May”). One or two readers may even find this song particularly timely.

The score can be found on IMSLP. Here is a recording sung by Christine Schäfer, otherwise known for intense twentieth-century repertory such as Berg and Boulez.

Now, I could almost get away with claiming that this was the post I meant to write, and that I had simply mixed up Schubert and Schumann. It’s arguably easy to do: their names share an initial syllable, they’re both German Romantic composers of…a bunch of things, including piano music, Lieder, chamber music, and symphonies; and Schumann was one of the first to “discover” Schubert (notably the “Great” C-major symphony), on one occasion writing one of his own works with a pen that Schubert had allegedly used.

But no one would actually believe me if I claimed that.

Not even if I pointed out that this post, like its would-have-been-predecessor, is also going to feature Schenker prominently. Even more specifically, is going to feature my disagreement with an analysis by Schenker.

All of that being, of course, a coincidence as timely as this song, and the other main coincidence of this soon-to-be-past month (about which more…next month).

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Mathemusicality is back

February 29, 2016

It’s February 29 again, which means it’s time to announce that this blog is being resurrected. Stay tuned for a post on Schubert (and Schenker).

Imminent resurrection possible

February 29, 2012

Continuing a tradition begun last February 29, I am posting to announce that…I may start posting again.

(The hiatus was a bit longer this time, of course. But perhaps the coming non-hiatus may be also.)

I would be picking up where I left off, more or less.


Every continuous function bounded implies compact

February 18, 2009

It occurs to me that it might be nice to post solutions to miscellaneous mathematical exercises at least once in a while.

I saw this one on a chalkboard earlier today; evidently the room was serving as the venue for an analysis class. It’s exactly the sort of elementary exercise that usually takes me a day to solve, if I’m lucky. But this time, I’m happy to report, I managed to figure it out in just a few minutes (while ostensibly listening to a lecture on something else).

Problem: Let U \subset \mathbf{R}^n be such that every real-valued continuous function on {}U is bounded. Prove that U is compact.

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Bach by popular demand…

December 31, 2008

Well, as requested, at any rate…

Here is an analysis of the first two measures of the B-flat major Prelude from WTC I.

Warning: this analysis breaks some of the rules (well, one in particular) of strict Westergaardian theory as expounded in ITT. In fact, it does so twice (at two distinct stages). Exercise: see if you can identify the rule that is broken, and give a convincing rationale for relaxing it.

1. The basic structure:

2. Segment the final two beats of the first span with: an incomplete neighbor in the bass, a complete neighbor in the soprano, a borrowing from the bass in the alto, and a rearticulated suspension in the tenor:

3. Anticipate the G in the soprano:

4. Borrow from these structural lines to create the texture of the passage:

5. Delay the fourth half-note:

6. Elaborate further (the operations being, I hope, clear):

7. Elaborate still further to obtain the passage as Bach gave it to us:

Happy New Year!

J.S. Bach: Air from Orchestral Suite No. 3, mm.1-2

May 31, 2008

Recall that in a previous post I challenged readers to analyze the first two measures of the Air from Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major (a piece, incidentally, that might be better referred to as “Air Off The G-String” than by its usual nickname). The time has come to reveal the answer.

In the Pachelbel analysis, we started from the underlying basic structure and showed how the passage was constructed via the Westergaardian operations. This time, for the sake of variety, we’ll proceed in the reverse direction, starting from the passage itself and “undoing” the operations until the basic structure is revealed.

Our passage is the following:

Stage 1

Call this Stage 12. The first thing we’ll undo are the explicit arpeggiations in the first violin and continuo lines:


Actually, I did a bit more than that, as you can see. I skipped a stage in which the first violin part looks like:

How did I know that D was the span pitch of the second half of beat 2 rather than C#? That is, why did the first violin part not reduce to:

Is it because G#-E-B (or even G#-E-B-D) is a Certified Chord, whereas G#-E-B-C# isn’t? Fat chance! As an exercise in eliminating harmony, see if you can explain the real reason. (I’ll likely explain it in a future post, but probably only after we’ve formally developed more Westergaardian theory. Hint: It has nothing to do with Certified Chords.)

Eliminating the borrowed G and B from the first violin, we obtain stage 10:


What an odd interpretation of beat 2! Instead of hearing a passing motion from E to C, I am interpreting the E as a borrowing from the viola line:


(Note also the elimination of the A borrowed from the second violin line.) Why on Earth is this interpretation to be preferred to the seemingly simpler one? The answer is that the seemingly simpler one isn’t in fact so simple. Notice that the D in the second violin line is left hanging (ITT, p. 30), and therefore not displaced, after beat 1. If the D in the first violin line were to be interpreted as a passing tone, that would leave us without a D among the sounding span pitches of beat 2. However, we know from the C# of beat 3, as well as from the fact that D was left hanging in the second violin, that D must be a span pitch for some span that includes beat 2 (deeper levels will make this clearer; see below). We would therefore be compelled to regard the second violins’ D as being temporarily displaced during beat 2; that is, it must move by step to some note borrowed from another line. (The only alternative would be to regard it as (entirely) undisplaced during beat 2, but this is made difficult because of the simultaneous E: since in this scenario we’re not considering D as a local span pitch of beat 2, we’re left with understanding an implicit dissonance, which is quite problematic indeed.) Since E is a span pitch of beat 2 and C# is not, we must therefore hear the D-line as moving up to a borrowed E during beat 2. But why should we go through the trouble of understanding such a conceptually difficult situation as the D-line effectively “merging” temporarily into the F#-E line? Given the stated step motion D-C# in the first violin, isn’t it easier to regard that D as a span pitch over the span of beat 2?

Stage 8 shows transferred pitches (ITT, sec. 7.7) reassigned to their rightful homes:

Stage 1

This stage represents the transition from instrumental lines to structural lines; I have symbolized this by switching from the alto clef to the treble clef in the third line.

Next the transferred pitches are reassigned to their rightful registers:


The suspension in the top line is removed:


Rearticulations in the bottom three lines:


Rearticulation of a suspension in the second and third lines; chromatic step motion in bass:


Suspensions eliminated:


Neighbor note removed:


Finally, then, we have the basic structure of the phrase:


Pachelbel’s Canon

April 23, 2008

As you might expect, the demise of the IMSLP has put something of a damper on my grandiose plans of analyzing musical works on this blog. Today, however, we’re in luck, as Wikipedia provides all the source material I’ll need for this post.

The context for this is a question, of sorts, posed by a commenter named “funkhauser” (the reason I say “of sorts” will hopefully become clear):

It seems to me that a surprisingly large number of progressions of 8 chords found in say, your favorite piece, have a IV chord as the “middle” chord (i.e., if each chord lasts a quarter note and we are in 4/4 time then the IV chord is the first chord of the second measure). Two familiar examples are Pachel[bel]’s Canon and the beginning of Bach’s Air on the G string. The chord progressions are, roughly:
I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – IV – V
I – iii – vi – vi7 – IV – V7/V – V – V7

(…)However, I can’t think of an 8-chord progression I’ve heard in which the V chord is the middle chord…Imagine putting the V in the place of the IV in Pachelbel’s Canon or Bach’s Air. It would completely change the feel of the piece (and arguably, it would ruin it).

(…)What I’m wondering is: In Westergaard’s theory can we derive the important difference in function between IV and V? And can we derive the fact that the IV should occupy stronger beats and larger time spans than V?

Tisk tisk. It’s obvious that the questioner has not yet managed to throw off the Rameauvian shackles, and is still laboring under the impression that musical passages are constructed by juxtaposing “chords” in time. Well, funkhauser, you’ve come to the right place — disabusing innocent souls of this mistaken notion has become one of my missions in life.

The best way to start, I think, is to take a look at these passages and see what’s actually going on. Here’s how to construct the opening of Pachelbel’s canon:

1. The underlying basic structure is the usual \hat{3} - \hat{2} descent (with the \hat{2} on its way to \hat{1}, of course):

2. These structural lines will be realized as three textural lines, with span pitches assigned as follows:

(When I say “assigned” I technically mean borrowed, of course.)

3. The top two lines will both descend from the upper note to the lower:

4. The A is delayed by a lower neighbor, in familiar fashion:

5. We connect the F# to the A and the D to the F# by step motion. In fact, we’d like to have continuous quarter notes in these two voices, so on beat 3 of m.2 we’ll also elaborate the C# by a lower neighbor passing tone in the top voice (producing functional parallelism alignment with the bass) and borrow a G from the bass for the middle voice:

6. Actually, we’d like to have quarter notes in all three voices, so we elaborate the bass by means of borrowing :

(The A and the F# are of course borrowed from the span pitches of stage 2 above.)

7. Now, since this is supposed to be a canon, we’ll present the voices one by one.

8. Finally, this is how the texture is actually realized, in terms of which instruments play what.

Now, having analyzed the passage, let’s see if we can address funkhauser’s question. The first thing to note is that nowhere in the above derivation sequence is there any mention of “chords” at all. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even bother to check whether the progression claimed by funkhauser

I – V – vi – iii – IV – I – IV – V

is “accurate” or not — so that as I’m typing this, I literally don’t know what the “chords” of this passage are! I It’s important to emphasize this, because I just got through analyzing the passage in precise detail, attributing a specific function to every single note, and I have the passage itself, as well as my analysis of it, firmly entrenched in memory. Indeed, I can’t mentally replay the passage without instantly and simultaneously reconstructing my analysis. And yet — and yet — when it comes to selecting the appropriate Roman numeral for each of these quarter-note simultaneities, I am — at least at this immediate moment — about as clueless as a typical freshman theory student. (Though I do already know the first one will be I and the last one V.)

Having made that point, let me now pause to reflect on what the chords are…Okay, yes, funkhauser has got it “right”; though I suppose there is an ambiguity about beat 3 of m.1, since there are only two distinct pitch-classes in that simultaneity. Come to think of it, the same is true of both “IV” chords in m.2. Oh, and it’s also true of the very first chord!

(Notice how very different this type of thought is from the instinctive, intuitive reasoning that I used to construct the above analysis. Actually, “instinctive, intuitive” is not the correct description; what I meant to say was specifically musical. Whereas what I am doing here, in verifying funkhauser’s chord progression, is the totally abstract (if trivial) mathematical problem of verifying that two finite sets are equal to each other.)

Funkhauser asks about the difference in function of the IV and V chords. What I would like to point out is that there is no “IV chord” at all! The simultaneity on beat 1 of m.2 is just the coincidence of two passing tones, and that on beat 3 is just the coincidence of two neighbors a passing tone and a neighbor. To pick out these chords as fundamental objects in their own right (and as the same fundamental object, no less!), is to carve up musical reality in the wrong way, like putting dolphins in the same category as fish.

Strictly speaking, then, the answer to funkhauser’s question is “mu” — i.e., “your question depends on incorrect assumptions”. The “chords” of harmonic theory are simply not legitimate music-theoretical entities, any more than Earth, Air, Water, and Fire are chemical elements. Yes, these four things do exist, but they don’t play anything like the theoretical role that people once attributed to them. In fact, today we understand that not only are they not fundamental, but they’re not even the same kind of thing: “Earth” is a planet, “air” is a state of matter (gas), “water” is a chemical compound (H2O), and “fire” is a process (combustion).

So it is with “IV”, “V”, and all the rest. Yes, there are collections of notes in musical compositions to which you could give these labels, but to do so is to presuppose the wrong theory of music.

Like Aristotelian chemistry, harmonic theory may not seem obviously wrong until you’ve had considerable experience with the alternative. This explains why I invariably get reactions like “But…but…of course harmonic theory is correct (or useful) — look how ubiquitous progressions like I-IV-V-I are!”

Yes, and the “Four Elements” are also ubiquitous in the natural world.

For the moment, I will leave it as an exercise to come up with the correct analysis (or at least an analysis of the correct type) of the first two measures of the Air from Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite. Here’s a big hint: