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Why?
Back to front page | Why did he write his theory | What's the point today | Philosophical Context | Organicism and Unity | Who was Schenker? | Schenker and Semiotics

Organicism and Unity
These are the two words that are perhaps most often associated with Schenker's theory of music. The discussion of art in relation to these concepts can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, and Schenker is part of a long line of scholars and composers who have been interested in their relevance to music.

To say that something is organic is to compare its qualities to those of living organisms in the natural world. Many metaphors have been used to describe and explain music, but the organic one has been particularly pervasive from the end of the eighteenth century, to Schenker's time and beyond. Two qualities are central to an organic metaphor of music:

Growth the development observed in plants and animals - the idea that growth has a purpose and goal is also important
Unity the way nature organises various parts into wholes (the cells of the body for example) - the idea of internal coherence

(William Pastille discusses Schenker's view of organicism at greater length in an article in Music Analysis - see bibliography)

Schenker suggested various ways in which music could be understood as organic:

  • he proposed that music can be understood as growing and developing in successive layers from a simple seed - the fundamental structure

  • he suggested that the fundamental descent spanned and generated a whole work and thus helped make it a coherent whole

  • he showed how works were unified by patterns that recurred on different layers of the piece - known as parallelisms

  • his explanation of how tonal music is derived from the harmonic series explicitly refers to music's natural tendency for growth

Schenkers writings are filled with metaphors of growth, birth and life and this aspect of his approach to music should not be forgotten when trying to come to grips with the more abstract parts of his theory. Here are three examples:

This ascending third-progression is the seed from which the prelude [the seventh of Bach's Twelve Short Preludes] emerges; once this seed is sown, the entire harvest is determined - Schenker, 'Bach: Twelve Short Preludes, No. 7' from The Masterwork in Music, p. 58
I would like to stress in particular the biological factor in the life of tones. We should get used to the idea that tones have lives of their own, more independent of the artist's pen in their vitality than one would dare believe - Schenker, Harmony, p. xxv
Only because of its its emergence from the Urlinie's motherly womb is an inner unity even possible for diminution - Schenker, The Masterwork In Music (translated in Snarrenberg)

The notion of the work of art as a unified and organic whole has been increasingly questioned by modern thinkers. However, as is discussed elsewhere in this section, organicism is an important part of the philosophical and aesthetic climate in which much tonal music was created.

Schenkerian analysis can therefore form an important part of an approach to tonal music even though we may reject the exclusive vision of the work of art that it engenders.

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