Syntax Square (MIT, Dpt. of Linguistics & Philosophy), April 4, 2016

A fundamental aspect of Western music is tonal harmony, or tonality, a complex rule system for specifying a) acceptable combinations of notes and chords within a key through reference to the tonic, its tonal center, and b) relationships between different keys. This is usually called harmonic function. Implicit knowledge of harmonic functions enables listeners to form strong expectations about the harmonic structure of musical pieces. To account for this phenomenon, previous research points to hierarchical grammatical models similar to those used to account for linguistic structure. The harmonic structure in music of the common practice period (Bach to Beethoven) is well described by grammars which define harmonic functions as recursive, tonic-headed patterns. In extended tonality, the language of the romantic period (Schubert to Mahler), harmonic patterns can be formalized in terms of finite state automata or as finite cyclic groups of transformations acting on notes or chords. However, the relationship to hierarchical descriptions and thus the integration into cognitive models that account for the building of harmonic expectations faces several challenges:

  • How to deal with cyclic patterns?
  • Are local dependencies enough?
  • How to determine head(s) of phrases?

This talk will outline the conceptual framework for dealing with musical instances of extended tonality in order to draw connections to current cognitive models of tonal harmony. Musical examples that will be discussed include:


Wich piece would be more suitable to start posting some musical analyses? None, of course. So here it is. Harmonic analysis is quite easy and should be comprehensive by anybody with basic knowledge on harmony. What was surprising to me was, that I never analized this piece actively before. I just took its simplicity and beauty for granted without looking behind its curtain. I only want to point out one point here: The closure of the piece occurs already in m. 19. Everything afterwards – although harmonically more interesting than everything before – sounds like a coda or a final tonic prolongation. Agree?


Yesterday, I gave a presentation in the lecture „Understanding Musical Structures“ at TU Dresden. My topic was „The terror of sanctity – tonal cues for resolving ambiguity in Parsifal and Lord of the Rings„. You can find my slides here. The students‘ feedback was not enormous to be honest but I god some interesting replies from my colleagues at least :)

Surface Tension-Acrylic Medium-Papers-Hollow Core Wooden Door With Luan Facing-46.25 X 35.5 X 2

So yesterday I had the wonderful opportunity to listen to a concert/talk with Martin Rohrmeier and Florian Mayer on creativity. Besides the very illustre presentation, the musical improvisations helped a lot to show how creativity may work. So good that I went there :)