Stanley Kleppinger

Pitch Centricity without Pitch Centers

Pitch centricity is commonly understood as the effect of perceptual focus upon one pitch class above all others in a given musical context. This perspective implies a binary classification for Western music of approximately the last century: either it doesn’t project a pitch center, or it engenders pitch centricity via continuation of common-practice techniques or new, divergent methods. The adjectival pairing ‘atonal/tonal’, whatever else it connotes, serves frequently to distinguish these contrasting musical circumstances. Theories and analyses dealing with the first category are myriad, and there has emerged a growing body of work concerned with the second. But lost in this dichotomy is a third potential class of post-common-practice repertoire: music that coaxes the listener into associating the music with pitch centricity without fostering certainty about what its pitch center might be. This third approach to pitch centricity has distinct perceptual—and thus analytical—issues that merit special attention.
This paper explores the perceptual basis for the boundaries among these categories in an attempt to better delineate the third. Informed by research into tonal induction, I speculate that listeners reflexively bring pitch centricity to bear on musical situations that evoke common-practice tonal elements, including diatonic collections, stable triads, emphasis of ic 5, and the vectoring of musical space that these other properties stimulate. These characteristics catalyze the ‘listen-for-pitch-centers’ mechanism of the auditory process, even in those cases where identifying a certain pitch center is a difficult or impossible task. The analyses I will present—of excerpts by Webern, Vaughan Williams, Copland, and others—highlight the importance of distinguishing between pitch-centric listening and pitch-center identification: the former may exist without the latter, and the gap between them is an essential stylistic feature for much music of the last century.