String-based methods for tonal harmony: A corpus study of Haydn’s string quartets

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Theories of tonal harmony generally make three claims about musical organization: (1) the pitch events of tonal music group (or cohere) into discrete (primarily tertian) sonorities; (2) the succession of these sonorities over time follows a logical order, what has commonly been called harmonic syntax; and (3) the stability relations characterizing these sonorities apply recursively, such that a triad at one level of the hierarchy—say, for example, the tonic—nests (or subsumes) sonorities at lower levels—the dominant or predominant. Thus, like language, tonal music exhibits certain design features—namely, recurrence, syntax, and recursion—that both exploit and reflect the sensory and cognitive mechanisms by which listeners organize sensory stimuli (Fitch 2006). As a result, allusions to principles of linguistic organization abound in music research (Lerdahl and Jackendoff 1983; Rohrmeier 2011). Patel (2008) has argued, for example, that “the vast majority of the world’s music is syntactic, meaning that one can identify both perceptually discrete elements ... and norms for the combination of these elements into sequences” (pp. 241-242). Yet despite recent strides by the linguistics community to discover potentially analogous organizational principles in natural languages using data-driven methods, applications of statistical modeling procedures have yet to gain sufficient traction in music research. To be sure, Neuwirth (2013) has characterized the prevailing approach adopted by many in the music theory community as one based on what statistician David Fischer has called “intuitive statistics” (p. 34), with scholars frequently eschewing explicit statistical methods in favor of qualitative descriptions derived from empirical observation. Thus, this chapter considers how we might adapt string-based methods from fields like corpus linguistics and natural language processing to address music-analytic questions related to the discovery of musical organization, with particular attention devoted to the analysis of tonal harmony. Following Gjerdingen (1988), I begin in the next section by applying the taxonomy of mental structure first proposed by Mandler (1979) to the concept of musical organization. Using this taxonomy as a guide, I then present evidence in the next three sections for each of the design features mentioned above—recurrence, syntax, and recursion—using a corpus of Haydn string quartets.

Original languageEnglish
JournalUnknown Journal
StatePublished - Jun 27 2020

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