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

The Descent from (or fundamental descent)
It is widely recognised that tonal music is distinguished by a functional relationship between tonic and dominant (V and I). In virtually all tonal pieces, perfect cadences (full closes) are used to establish the main key, confirm any modulations and bring the music to an end. Schenker recognised that most works follow the same basic pattern:

initial tonic

movement away from initial tonic perfect cadence in tonic
I V (and possibly other key areas) V-I

There is nothing particularly original or controversial about this, but Schenker's theoretical aims were much more ambitious. He gradually developed the idea that this pattern could be represented by a two-part contrapuntal progression that, with only small changes, formed the background of all tonal pieces.

The bass part for such a structure more-or-less selects itself:

Any piece of tonal music can be seen as an elaboration of this pattern:

  • tonal pieces generally start with I
    (a clear statement of the tonic may be delayed e.g. Beethoven's First Symphony, where the tonic (C) initially appears as the dominant of F)
  • the V - I represents the final perfect cadence (full close) of the piece BUT
  • in a longer piece whole sections may prolong V (traditional theory would call this being 'in' the dominant Schenker calls it a tonicization of the dominant)
  • also in longer pieces, there may be other harmonic areas prolonged in between the initial I and the V of the final perfect cadence (full close)
  • the bass of the fundamental structure can appear in many different layers of a piece - as in Three Blind Mice (the example used in the next section)

This bass line is only a harmonic progression and Schenker's theory seeks to understand music in terms of a two-part contrapuntal structure.

He initially proposed that the upper voice (or part) of the fundamental structure consisted of a series of rising and falling linear progressions, but he gradually simplified this until he arrived at the following two-part structure:

Note the way that the fundamental structure is notated: various stems, beams and caretted numbers help the reader to see where it is when it is part of a more detailed analysis (see Notation Guide)

The top line of this progression is called the Urlinie or fundamental descent; the bottom line is called the Bassbrechung or bass arpeggiation; together they are called the Ursatz or fundamental structure

Schenker suggested that this progression (along with a number of variants) was the most basic expression of tonal music. Much of the rest of SchenkerGUIDE shows how various pieces from Three Blind Mice to Beethoven can be understood as an elaboration of this descent from (the caret over the number means scale degree). Before moving on to these examples you might reasonably ask why you would want to understand tonal works in this way. Here are a few reasons for you to bear in mind:

  • this progression represents one of the simplest contrapuntal expressions of the I - V - I unit
  • At the beginning of Free Composition, Schenker wrote the following motto: 'always the same but not in the same way'. By understanding tonal music as generated from a simple fundamental structure, analysts can more easily separate those features of a work that are common to all tonal music from those that make it unique
  • Schenker suggested that whereas represents an upper voice at its maximum state of rest (there is nowhere for it to resolve), represents a tension that requires resolving. Schenker described the fundamental structure as a 'tension span' - the tension introduced by the initial is not resolved until the music reaches the final over the tonic. For Schenker, this tension span was what bound complex and varied pieces of music into a single coherent work of art. From our modern perspective, the idea of large-scale tension resolution opens exciting avenues from a semiotic perspective.

The reason Schenkerian analysis has become so widely adopted today is because it seems to offer the best explanation of how tonal music works. Schenker did not justify his theories in these terms however - he understood the fundamental structure as a metaphysical, almost religious, concept as is explored in the Why? section of SchenkerGUIDE.

The fundamental structure is best discussed by way of example - the next section makes use of a simple and well-known tune to clarify how it works in practice.