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A Guide to Schenker's Theory of Tonal Music

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This guide to Schenker's theories on tonal music is organised according to topic. The rationale behind this arrangement is explained below the links.

Harmony Counterpoint
The Combination of Harmony and Counterpoint
The Fundamental Structure


Schenker's theory of tonal music evolved over a period that spanned most of his career. During this time he wrote many other essays which discussed a wide range of topics from close analyses of rhythm and texture to studies of improvisation. Like many musicians then (and now), he felt that the key to understanding the structure of tonal music lay in the pitch organisation. Although his analyses discuss all the various parameters of a musical work, it is nevertheless pitch that his theory concentrates on.

Traditional theory and teaching concentrates on two aspects of pitch - harmony and counterpoint. Schenker felt that both were widely misunderstood and therefore concentrated first on clarifying and correcting what he saw as the mistakes of previous theorists.

His study of harmony is mostly theoretical, while his study of counterpoint is largely based on a teaching method called Species Counterpoint that had been in existence for several centuries. His aim was ultimately to bring these two disciplines together in a study of what Schenker called 'free composition' (i.e. real music!). Towards the end of his career, he formulated the most controversial part of his theory - the fundamental structure.

The part of his theory that initially had the most impact in the English-speaking world was his ideas on what he called parallelism. Motivic analysis had traditionally looked for how themes and motives were related to one another on the surface. Schenker suggested that what was more significant was the way in which musical ideas had hidden similarities. The idea of parallelism is intimately connected with his understanding of the structure of music and is therefore dealt with last.