The origin of tonality
Revised on 14 May 2013
What is the origin of major-minor tonality? A good theory must
plausibly explain how major-minor tonality emerged historically, and it
must do so more
convincingly than competing theories. The theory's basic underlying
must be generalisable to phenomena outside the theory (here, outside
the perception of major-minor tonality, or of musical pitch) -
they would be arbitrary. The theory must be consistent with the known
social and psychological constraints within which major-minor tonality
emerged historically, but also with the way major-minor tonality is
perceived today. The theory should be able to predict which chord
progressions occur most commonly in major-minor music, and its
predictions should change as the constraints change in a way that can
account for different tonal styles (e.g. baroque, romantic,
impressionist or bebop harmony). Given a tonal passage, the theory
should be able to predict the changing tonality of a modulating passage
as determined by music theorists or perceived by listeners, and the
points in time at which there are shifts to different tonal areas. The
above arguments provide a framework within which these goals can
be approached more closely than before, but much further work needs to
It is interesting to consider the history of music theory from this perspective. Many generations of music theorists have grappled with questions of this kind. In a nutshell, Pythagoras pointed to the role of number ratios (later frequency ratios), Rameau and Stumpf to the role of the harmonic series, Helmholtz to the role of beats and roughness, Terhardt to the role of pitch perception, Cazden and Krumhansl to the role of familiarity and learning. But none of these theorists, and no other theorist to my knowledge (one could easily list a hundred of them), came up with simple, plausible, testable answers to simple basic questions such as: Why did major and minor triads emerge in the 13th-15th centuries? Why did the major and minor key systems emerge in the 15th-17th centuries? Why did both come to dominate Western tonal music?
Schenker was surely the greatest music theorist of the 20th century, but his attempts to answer these questions were embarrassing by today's standards. He rightly criticised the failed attempts of his predecessors and contemporaries, but could not come up with anything better. For example, he theorised that the seventh harmonic is not part of the Western tonal system, but failed to subject the question itself to analytic scrutiny (what exactly does this question mean?). It is more realistic to ask why certain specific chords became common in tonal Western music while others remained uncommon, and then to develop a theory of consonance to explain that. The problem with the mistuning of the seventh harmonic by comparison to the equally tempered scale or commonly heard musical tunings cannot be addressed by listening and performing music and merely reflecting on one's experience. It is necessary to collect empirical data on tuning in real music and on the sensitivity of the ear to mistunings in different musical and non-musical contexts. If music theorists want to answer these questions, they need basic training not only in traditional music theory but also in acoustics, psychology and psychoacoustics.
Schenker went on to claim (in agreement with many others) that the major mode is more "natural" while the minor mode is more "artificial", but of course both are artificial: it took hundreds of years of musical development for them to emerge and become accepted in Western culture. His discussion of the music of "primitive peoples" in conjunctions with this question is completely misguided by modern standards and is barely worth criticizing.
To be fair, Schenker not only made the greatest contribution to music theory and analysis of any 20th-century theorist, he also stressed that he was primarily an artist and not a researcher or theorist. Moreover, his explanations have the advantage that they are grounded in analyses of real music. But from a modern scientific viewpoint we cannot learn much from his attempts to explain major/minor triads and keys.
Today, we need a fresh approach to these basic questions that is grounded in careful empirical investigations and careful testing of predictive models. Given that music is happening right here on earth as part of human culture, we need to adopt the empirical approach of Aristoxenus and not the idealistic attitude of Pythagoras. That is what I am trying to do in this research. I am not rejecting study of the history of music theory, and in fact I am sure that there are many important insights to be gained from it that have largely been ignored by music psychologists; but I am also not afraid to point out (as Schenker himself did) that most of the conclusions drawn by music theorists of the past about basic musical questions were incorrect by modern standards. This statement, incidentally, is not confined to music theory, but applies quite generally to the history of science (Bryson, 2004).
Current research projects
Current research at the Centre for Systematic Musicology in Graz about the perceived structure of tonal music is going in two contrasting directions:
1. Statistical analysis of a database of medieval and Renaissance sacred polyphonic music. How often did specific vertical pitch-class sets occur in different periods and styles? Can prevalence profiles, and historical changes in such profiles, be explained in terms of psychological theories of consonance and dissonance?
2. The perception of pitch in complex tonal sonorities such western chords and Indonesian gamelan sounds. In both cases we are studying the effect of musically typical acoustic manipulations and individual differences between listeners with different expertise and listening styles. On that basis, we will study perceived pitch-based relationships between successive chords in western chord progressions.
A few references
Bryson, B. (2004). A short history of nearly everything. London: Transworld.
Parncutt, R. (2011). The tonic as triad: Key profiles as pitch salience profiles of tonic triads. Music Perception, 28, 333-365. pdf
Parncutt, R., & Hair, G. (2011). Consonance and dissonance in theory and psychology: Disentangling dissonant dichotomies. Journal of Interdisciplinary Music Studies, 5 (2), 119-166. pdf
Schenker, H. (1906). Neue musikalische Theorien und Fantasien. 1. Band: Harmonielehre. Stuttgart: Cotta.