Steven Rings

Transformational Theory and Empirical Research on Tonality

This talk will situate the analytical models presented in my book Tonality and Transformation (Oxford, 2011; hereafter T&T) with respect to empirical, historical, and corpus-based research into tonality. At the heart of T&T are transformational models that speculatively reconstruct certain basic aspects of tonal experience. One draws on concepts of tonal qualia: the ‘raw feels’ that pitches take on when they are heard as tonal scale degrees. The other is based on the idea of tonal intention: the directedness of the listener’s hearing towards a tonic. While these concepts have certain points of contact with work in music cognition and perception, T&T is not scientific or empirical in its intellectual commitments; it is instead a contribution to hermeneutic music theory, in which models of musical experience are deployed in a range of interpretive contexts. T&T also differs from other recent work on tonality that is based in corpus studies. While such work seeks to determine statistical regularities in the tonal practice of given historical eras by studying vast numbers of works (usually algorithmically), T&T is more traditionally ‘humanistic’ in its focus on close readings of single works. Nevertheless, there are suggestive points of contact between T&T and such empirical and corpus-based studies. For at the core of T&T are some basic notions about what tonal phenomenology is like at the local, granular level of experience; such ideas can complement the broader, repertory-general claims of empirical and corpus studies, translating their findings into insights into individual passages and works. Moreover, the findings of corpus theorists suggest that modes of tonal hearing have by no means remained stable over the centuries. Rather, tonal experience has always been historically contingent, shaped by the statistical regularities of the repertories of given eras. These insights into the historical mutability of tonal hearing suggest era-specific refinements to certain of the models in T&T, some of which are adumbrated in the book, and which I will explore further in my talk.