Miscellaneous Thoughts on Tonality and Musical Architecture

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Sometimes you get weeks when different areas of your life keep bringing you back to the same set of thoughts from different angles. Back in the summer I was thinking a lot about Schenker, in the context of a keynote paper I was writing on tonal integrity for the conference in Portugal at the start of November. In choral music we often think about tonal integrity in the simple, functional sense of not going flat, but Schenker is useful for standing back and considering tonality as both an organising principle for long spans of musical time and as a human quality: centredness, in touch with the true.

(I am aware that one of the reasons why most musicians avoid thinking too much about Schenker’s theories as metaphors for life is that he came out with some obnoxiously snobbish views in this mode. But you don’t have to agree with someone to learn from them, and I don’t mind too much if he ends up turning in his grave at the conclusions I end up drawing from his work.)

And then I found myself giving feedback on an arrangement that, in my view, travelled through too many tonal centres, and had to work out why I held this opinion. As I had already been thinking about Schenker, the first thought was about coherence: if tonality is the originary, generative principle from which music grows, and by which it is held together, then a change of key isn’t just a momentary effect, but a wholesale change of musical space.

It goes without saying that Schenker would hate the semitone key lift as an arranging device, but then again he’d already have hated most of the music that uses that device anyway. Indeed, one of the reasons I’m tending to be more careful about using them in my own work is my observation that the reason so many groups end up in the key they started instead of a semitone higher may not be because they are poorly skilled, but because their fundamental sense of tonality is stronger than their sense of momentary thrill at the point of the shift.

Still, even in a genre where key lifts are an established and accepted device, and arrangements don’t necessarily end in the keys they started in, I think it’s reasonable to ask tonal areas to have some kind of comprehensible relationship with each other.

Because key isn’t just about an arbitrary choice of which pitch you take as ‘doh’ when you start out, it is integral to an arrangement’s mode of expression. This is partly about the connotative effects of different keys, which whilst not absolute codes, have well-worn associations within our musical culture.

But it’s also about how the music inhabits the sonic space. Which key you write in affects your use of tessitura, of texture, of voicing: the entire expressive behaviour of the music is shaped by choice of key. If you keep changing the tonal centre, you keep changing how you have to go about writing the music. It can be like changing who plays the main character mid-story without an effective plot device to explain why the person with the same name now looks, moves and sounds very different. Thinking through this gave me a new slant on the concept of ‘unity’, which was one of the most loaded terms in the aesthetic values of my undergraduate education. I am enjoying thinking about it in terms of expressive practicalities rather than as some quasi-mystical token of genius (yawn).

Thinking about how tonality shapes expression, and thus the coherence of musical form also got me thinking about the metaphor of architecture in music. The detailing matters, but you need to make the space functionally liveable first. Having started off considering the lofty discourse of Schenker, I wandered off to muse on how some of the over-embellished new charts we are hearing these days are the musical version of McMansions.

I’ve been saying for a while that I’d rather people were trying new things than not hearing all this new material, but that doesn’t mean all of it works equally well. I think I may have just stumbled over an appropriate metaphor for some of the difficulties we’ve been hearing in the more experimental charts of recent years.

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