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Function of Tonality

Tonality is a technique for assuring a certain integrity in a composition; its major goal is to make comprehension easier. However, we pay a great price for this service, and the price is being constrained to a single type of relationship in the composition -- namely the integer harmonic relationship. In a tonal context, the relationship of the tonic to every note and all operations resulting to those notes have to be clearly comprehended. The tonal structure of chords is used as a reinforcement of the physical structure of the tonic. The operations which are applied to notes to build chords or melodies, as well as the operations applied to chords and chord progressions, are themselves completely in accord with the structure of the tone. All these operations and state of relationships act as agents of context in relation to the tonic. Thus, every chord implies a certain context. For example, a stable chord implies a certain resolution in the musical idea, and a dissonant chord implies tension. Therefore, formally speaking, the relationship between the overtone series of notes cannot be used as content of musical meaning, since if it is in accordance with the context then it becomes part of the context and cannot be distinguished. On the other hand if this content -- the relationship of the overtone series of the notes creating the chord -- would not agree with the contextual requirements, we run into a contradiction of form and content. Schoenberg says [40, page 217]:
Formerly the harmony had served not only as a source of beauty, but, more important, as a means of distinguishing the features of form.
and on the functions of tonality, he says[40, page 277]:
Though the development of tonality was by leaps and bounds, though it has not signified the identical thing at all times, its function has, nevertheless, been one and the same. It has always been the referring of all results to a centre, to a fundamental tone, to an emanation point of tonality, which rendered important service to the composer in matters of form. All the tonal successions, chords, and chord-successions in a piece achieve a unified meaning through their definite relation to a tonal centre and also through their mutual ties.

That is the unifying function of tonality.

Schoenberg repeatedly emphasized that the function of form is for comprehensibility[40, page 316]:

I have, above all, repeatedly pointed out the purpose of all forms: a layout which guarantees comprehensibility.
Notice the emphasis on ``purpose of all forms''. This is a central idea in Schoenberg's theory. If we break the principles of tonality, according to this idea, all we risk is comprehensibility and not any musical content, and it is following this belief that he says[40, page 216]:
What distinguishes dissonances from consonances is not a greater or lesser degree of beauty, but a greater or lesser degree of comprehensibility.
What distinguishes dissonances from consonances is the way the overtone series of their parts -- the two or more combined tones -- match each other. After all, what does combining two tones mean? He says[40, page 270]:
The question is more important than it seems at first; nevertheless to my knowledge it has not previously been raised. Although all imaginable and far reaching problems have been considered, no one has yet asked: How, after all, can two tones be joined one with another?

My answer is that such a juxtaposition of tones, if a connection is to be brought about from which a piece of music may be the result, is only possible because a relation already exists between the tones themselves.

Logically, we can only join things that are related, directly or indirectly. In a piece of music I cannot establish a relation between a tone and, let us say, an eraser; simply because no musical relation exists.
Notice how far he has pushed his ideas when he is considering a piece of music resulting only from connection of two tones; and at the same time he has to make such seemingly simple-minded examples as the relationship of a tone and an eraser to communicate his idea. No doubt we can in turn use Schoenberg's reasoning to imply that the fact that a tone and an eraser are brought up in a single sentence shows they do have a relationship with each other. Then, the question is if they have a musical relationship or not, and if there is any border between what is called ``musical relationship'' and other kind of relationship. Again, we can use Schoenberg's own reasoning about consonances and dissonances and establish a relationship between musical relationships and other types of relationships, and say that this is matter of degree and not of kind.

However, the importance of what Schoenberg is saying is not in the ``truth'' of his statement, but in what it communicates to us, which is a relationship between what characterizes music in our minds and nature. After explaining that the major and chromatic scales both are derived from the nature of the tone itself, he goes on to say that our music making is just simply an imitation of nature[40, page 272]:

And here is the answer to our question regarding the possibility of interconnection of the tones. It is founded on the fact that in the sounding tones and its nearest relative, the union and the companionship of the tones is continuously demonstrated to our ear, so that we do nothing more than imitate nature when we make use of these relations.
In other words, in the language of this essay, music is nothing but a piece of sound. If we apply this reasoning to every aspect of our mind and our intelligence, we reach a very obvious conclusion: our mind and our intelligence are simply an imitation of nature, and therefore they, and whatever results from them -- including this sentence -- are part of the nature.

Let us reiterate what the continuum of consonances and dissonances mean. Before, the relationship of the harmonics were only used as form; now we can denounce that type of form and use this relation as part of the content in the music. Therefore, in this way we can communicate musical ideas (relationships), which were communicated horizontally and progressively, vertically and instantaneously. These situations had come about in music before Schoenberg formulated his theories. In preparation for explanation of his ``twelve-tone method'', he writes[40, page 216]:

Richard Wagner's harmony had promoted a change in the logic and constructive power of harmony. One of its sequences was the so-called impressionistic use of harmonies, especially practiced by Debussy. His harmonies, without constructive meaning, often served the colouristic purpose of expressing moods and pictures.
And he further writes:
One no longer expected preparations of Wagner's dissonances or resolutions of Strauss' discords; one was not disturbed by Debussy's non-functional harmonies, or by harsh counterpoints of later composers.
Once Schoenberg formalized the functions of such chords, he went further and declared that tonality was not an eternal law of music. His ``twelve-tone method'' and serialism were methods which were devised to assure form in music which did not depend on tonality.

next up previous contents
Next: Serialism Up: Tonality Previous: Consonance and Dissonance   Contents
Shahrokh Yadegari 2001-03-01