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Common practice tonality

From about 1600 to 1900, Western music embraced a harmonic language that has come to be called “ Common Practice tonality .” Around the turn of the 20th century, progressive composers such as Claude Debussy , Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky moved away from traditional tonality ; the result was a breakdown in Common Practice that continues to this day. In most of “ Sound Reasoning ,” we have studied music as an abstract artform, with generalized principles that apply to any style or era. Harmony, however, is rooted in style: The way harmony behaves in a classical work—what it can say and how it says it-- is different from how it does so in an avant-garde twentieth century work. Because Common Practice tonality underlies the Western classical tradition and has proven to be so influential, our study of harmony begins here.

The major-minor contrast

The contrast between the Major and minor modes is the harmonic foundation of Western classical music.



To composers of the Common Practice era, everything about human experience --love and loss, triumph and calamity, private reflection and public proclamations, the material and the spiritual, the civilized and the wild—could be expressed either in Major or minor . In the twentieth century, avant-garde composers went beyond this duality. But, throughout the classical era, the entire musical universe consisted almost exclusively of music in Major or minor . For this reason, recognizing the difference between music in Major and minor is vital to hearing Common Practice harmony .

Musical meaning should always be considered provisional and flexible. That said, through a combination of acoustic and cultural factors, the Major mode is generally associated with positive feelings of joy , hopefulness , calm and celebration , whereas the minor mode has a negative “affect” and is generally associated with sadness , anger , despair and fear . In mainstream Western music, you are unlikely to hear a funeral march in Major or celebrate a marriage in minor.

This excerpt from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G-Major illustrates the drama of the Major-minor contrast . The winds begin in Major . After a pause, the piano shifts abruptly to minor with a striking change of musical character .

The musicologist David Huron has demonstrated that there is nothing inherently “sad” or “angry” about minor . In fact, there are cultures in which the minor scale in the “normative” one and is used for joyous occasions. Even in the Western tradition, the Major-minor contrast evolved over many centuries. However, in the classical repertoire, music in Major is almost invariably more upbeat than music in minor . Such is the strength of cultural exposure, it is almost impossible for a musically literate Westerner to hear otherwise.

The slow movement of J.S. Bach’s Concerto in g-minor begins with a progression in block chords in Major.

Later, the same progression is played in minor.

Does the change in mode register as a change in mood or emotional affect ?

Here are two excerpts from Bedrich Smetana’s Die Moldau : The first time, the melody is presented in minor , the second time in Major . Similarly, do you feel, as well as hear a difference between these two excerpts?

The distinction between Major and minor is a primary foundation of our study of Common Practice harmony .

Questions & Answers

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Bob Reply
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s. Reply
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Devang Reply
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Source:  OpenStax, Sound reasoning. OpenStax CNX. May 31, 2011 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10214/1.21
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