Friday, January 14, 2005

Journal Club: Tonal Systems in Rock music

The latest issue of MTO is out, so I thought I'd point out an article that may be of interest to a wide audience, Walter Everett's Making Sense of Rock's Tonal Systems. Everett uses Schenkerian analysis as his basis for categorizing and describing various types of rock music. However, one does not need to be versed in Schenker's theories to understand and discuss some of Everett's points. First is the idea that rock music can be described as tonal (the strong majority, at least), but in six different flavors, as listed on Table One. The first type is the standard tonality as practiced by composers from the 18th and 19th centuries, and quite prevalent in 20th century popular music. These use major or minor mode systems with typical harmonic progressions and voice-leading behavior (partwriting rules, for those who have taken any music theory). The second type uses typical major or minor modes and typical voice-leading, but nontypical chord progressions. Each subsequent type gets farther away from the standard view of tonality, until we get to the speed-metal systems of Type 6b, with tonality only perceived through assertion (the only chord played, or the chord played the longest) rather than by any relationship to other chords or voice-leading phenomena. Is this a good set of categories? I am uncertain about Type 3a, as modal mixture is a common feature in common practice tonality, so it should be covered by Type 1. Those quite familiar with rock music can also critique the placement of songs into these categories. I don't know any Beck tunes or many other pieces mentioned, so I am unqualified in this regard.

The other thing that can be appreciated is how Everett uses a single view of tonality, Schenkerian theory, to show how specific rock songs deviate from this standard, giving each one its unique appearance. I would have liked to seen more of this, rather than the comparison of pieces from 1957-58 and 1999-2000 that make up Part II of the paper. The scoring system Everett uses in Part II is not described adequately, so the results are highly questionable. And even if we accept the results as accurate, Everett does not provide any meaningful conclusions, beyond the obvious fact that the more contemporary period is more diverse in tonal systems.

Don't be turned off by the Schenkerian graphs in the figures. If you have an interest in rock music from anytime between 1950 and 2003, you will find something to appreciate in this article.

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