15 January 2005

Rock's tonal systems categorized

The current issue of Music Theory Online has an article by Walter Everett titled "Making Sense of Rock's Tonal Systems". Here are a few notes and thoughts on the content.

[ via Scott Spiegelberg -> Music Theory Online ]

The intent of the article is encapsulated in the author's six categorizations, provided in Table 1, of tonal systems in rock. However, instead of discussing that very dense subject, I'd like to riff on some of the smaller points made within the article.

Whereas differing tonal approaches may have evolved initially as an aspect of new stylistic differentiations, in subsequent years they would be appropriated from one style to another, so that today's rock music evinces a multitude of tonal values that are no longer consistently tied to particular styles; many different tonal systems are now practiced by the same artist, on the same album. [2]

This is an excellent point and an excellent point of departure. An immediate example is the scratching styles of the turntable purists (DJ Qbert) appropriated by pop metal bands and added as ambient texture (Linkin Park). Here, the avant garde of a new style is absorbed into the grammar of rock. Did this happen in other eras and styles, or is it unique to rock music? Is it unique to pop music? The author focuses on rock beginning in the 1950s. Given more time he could have looked at the lineage of popular music going back through big band, Tin-Pan Alley, etc. (many of which he references with regard to their relationship to rock). He understands the difficulty of separating such cross-pollinated styles--I leave the fine points of stylistic demarcation to others--but it leaves us with the question of how the morphology of modern "popular" music relates to that of prior eras' popular music.

It has been argued that "every early rock 'n' roll song is based on the twelve-bar blues form" (Hamm 1979, 396), but this leaves unconsidered a largely diatonic 16- and 32-bar doo-wop tradition just as important to very early rock and roll. And while the likes of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers did not achieve national prominence until a year after did Elvis Presley, the centrally diatonic nature of their south(west)ern and Appalachian folk-country styles was just as characteristic of Presley's repertoire as was the blues. Another of the earliest r&b/rock groups, The Platters, owes more by far to Jerome Kern ("Smoke Gets in Your Eyes") and to the major/minor tonal traits of Tin-Pan Alley than to the blues. [References, 4]

This hit home. I often rail against the canonization of the blues (sorry, not a fan) as the germinal style of rock. Rock has more DNA from tertian tonal Western music than from the limited scales of the blues. I argue from the point that voice-leading in pop music presents richer variation and invention--more closely related to the art songs of the 1800s--than is present in the blues. Mr. Everett draws stylistic relationships from a more recent era.

One must not be too quick to ascribe chromatic events to modal function, particularly where bVII [- IV - I] is involved. ... [J]ust as can a sequence of descending fifths, a passage involving descending fourths can carry on for quite an extended run ... [11]

This progression is all over the place in rock and here the author sets the record straight once again. That series of descending fourths (think of the verse in Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" with its Bb - F - Ab - Eb) is of course a fast shift of tonal centers. I almost think that the accusation of modality was fabricated: who would say such a thing? Anyway, and more importantly, this fast-and-furious change of key is always what I felt rock was about (oh yea, along with the drugs and chicks). Personally, I've always labeled it "pantonal." Although "pantonal" strictly means "atonal," I feel that the moniker is etymologically more correct for the harmonic language you find in rock music. Tonality still exists, but it has a looser meaning (think Stravinsky or Hindemith). It may just be my poorly trained ear, but a progression such as Bmin - Gmin - C# - Amin (from my transcription of "Ritual" by Yes), though built with tonal chords, sounds too tonally fluffy to be effectively analyzed as "tonal." When the leading tone is made meaningless, what approach do you take? Chords, not keys, are the building blocks of much of rock harmony.

Instead of 'pantonal', the term pandiatonic [Wikipedia] could be used. Although pandiatonic seems restricted to root progression based on the diatonic scale. In rock, chords are generally diatonic but their root progressions are chromatic. Also, the melodic content often defines a non-tonic chord (e.g. an Amaj chord may be acting as the subdominant or domiant).

Finally: the author's categorization is at points much more subtle a system than I can appreciate immediately. Worse, I over-emphasize the importance of rock's chord-centered universe at the expense of more truly tonal rock. There's more there there than I can dissect.

[ posted by sstrader on 15 January 2005 at 9:27:10 PM in Music ]