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The Fundamental Structure
Back to Guide | Introduction | The descent from 3 | Three Blind Mice | Other Descents | Prolonging the Fundamental Structure

This section explains one of the the most important parts of Schenker's theory - the fundamental structure. 'The descent from 3' and 'Three Blind Mice' introduce the most basic form of the fundmental structure.

'Other Descents' briefly discusses other forms of the fundamental structure before 'Prolonging the Fundamental Structure' outlines how substantial musical works can be understood in terms of this model.

Layers and Levels
The Combination of Harmony and Counterpoint two key concepts were introduced:

  • the first is diminution - tonal music consists of of a small number of linear units (such as neighbour notes and arpeggiations) that prolong harmonic units (such as I, II or V)
  • the second (touched upon only briefly) is the notion that these diminutions can be found at different levels or layers of the music. A neighbour note, for example, may be extended across a longer span of music through being prolonged by further diminutions (see Diminution Part III). According to Schenker even the most complex tonal music is underpinned by simple two-voice contrapuntal progressions.

Schenker's analytical model suggests that we can keep stripping away 'layers' of the music in order to find diminutions that span larger and larger sections of a piece (see stage II of working method). Schenker eventually formalised this model by distinguishing three different Schichten (layers, but more often translated as levels) of a musical structure:

Foreground the surface of the music
Middleground depending how long a piece is, it will have a number of middleground layers that are progressively further from the surface
Background this layer of music lies furthest from the surface - a few simple progressions span the entire work

Schenkerian analysis is often seen as a reductive method - you reduce a piece of music from the detail of its surface to a few simple diminutions (or progressions) that lie deep beneath that surface. This is a fair way of describing how you do a Schenkerian analysis but it is a misrepresentation of Schenker's actual model of music.

Schenker's Generative Model
Understanding Schenkerian analysis as reduction implies what might be called a "top down" approach - you start at the surface and dig deeper to find increasingly simple diminutions. Schenker himself, however, preferred to describe his model of music from the bottom up.

He understood the foreground of tonal music as generated from the simple diminutions in the background. His theory makes much more sense this way round too - rules that seem arbitrary from a reductive point of view are more easily understood from a generative one.

Schenker's basic premise is that music is built up from very simple progressions in the background. The notes of these background progressions have diminutions such as neighbour notes added to them in successive layers.

These diminutions only make sense if they are prolonging consonances that are behaving in the way set out in species counterpoint.

Schenker specifically says that this process of generation from background to foreground is not supposed to represent how a composer writes actual pieces - it is a conceptual model that explains how tonal music works. However, he controversially suggested that it is an explanation of how great composers almost unconsciously structure their music.

This generative approach is equally controversial from a purely theoretical perspective. Towards the end of his career, Schenker increasingly came to believe that fully developed tonal music (roughly speaking from Bach to Brahms) was best understood as being generated from a very limited number of two-voice contrapuntal progressions.

He called these progressions the Ursatz (usually translated as 'fundamental structure') and set out a strict set of rules that governed how any piece of music could be understood as a prolongation of them. The background level of a piece of tonal music consists of a very simple prolongation of this fundamental structure.