Christopher Brody

The Independence of Structural Parameters in Schenkerian Accounts of Tonal Form

Any approach to large-scale structure in tonal music must theorize the relationship between two different kinds of musical phenomena: tonal structure and thematic design, or what Rothstein (1989) termed “inner form” and “outer form”. This paper argues that the Schenkerian theory of form is a specific case of this general question, and develops a framework in which Schenkerian and other approaches can be meaningfully compared to one another.
In any tonal repertoire, we can pose two questions about tonal structure and thematic design. First, which is more important to determining structure within the repertoire? Schenkerian theory, while not discounting the importance of thematic design, has tended to take tonal structure as the more important parameter. Second, to what extent do the two parameters agree with one another? While Schenker’s original formulations of his ideas usually emphasized the ways in which tonal structure and thematic design do not agree, a rich tradition of Schenkerian scholarship has sought out ways to understand the two parameters as mutually complementary. At the extremes of the question, P. Smith (2005) has seen the two parameters as, in principle, totally independent of one another, in what he terms “dimensional counterpoint,” while C. Smith (1996) is sufficiently committed to parametric agreement that he revises a number of Schenker’s tonal analyses in order to reconcile them with more traditional ‘outer-form’ readings.
Out of these questions and controversies, this paper develops a general construct and represents it graphically with a geometrical device known as the ‘ternary plot’. It shows that the ‘importance’ and ‘agreement’ questions are not logically independent of each other: the more closely the two parameters are in agreement, the less it is possible for either tonal structure or thematic design to take precedence as more important than the other.