Music Theorist of the...Week?

Today's Music Theorist of the...Week? is Heinrich Schenker.


Schenker developed a reductive form of linear analysis of tonal music that aims to show the structural basis of tonality.

Think of it as a line graph that shows the organization of a painting. Or, if you prefer, think of it as a plot synopsis of a play or movie that shows the important structural events.

The basic idea is that the background of tonal "masterworks" are all structured about simple voice-leading principles. An hour-long Beethoven symphony, to Schenker, has the same principles of design as a Schubert song. This both makes sense and is confusing.

Many of Schenker's students fled Europe in face of Nazi invasions. They all landed in New York or New England, and got jobs all over the place, and thusly his ideas have been disseminated throughout the American music theory landscape. (No one in Europe studies Schenker.)

His ideas are profound and important. I have been forced to study them on more than one occasion. When you do, you make lots of graphs that look like this:

This is very confusing to the uninitiated. Sorry!

His theories are cool. And esoteric, which is also cool. He is also problematic in many ways. He refused to acknowledge music that was before Bach and after Brahms as "music". He was a bigot. He had many hard-to-deal-with ideas.

In the end, his structural ideas about tonal music are compelling. The graphs are fun to make, and to look at! And hard to understand. Here is a picture of Mr. Schenker that is not fun to look at.

You should not listen to his music! However, if you are interested in nerdy, esoteric music theory, you should check out his theory and graphs. They are totally fun to look at.

(All of the graphs get bigger if you click on them!)


Aaron said...

I'm interested in esoteric, nerdy music theory!

Not as much as, say, you guys presumably are, of course. Still, though.

Anonymous said...

I'm waiting for David Lewin week!

Mmm.. Generalized Musical Intervals.. can't Da-Lew get some love?