Rule-Breaking and Music Analysis

One of their [compositional norms] main uses—and purposes—is revealed precisely in departures from them…. In other words, norms are not laws that must be adhered to simply for the sake of coherence or intelligibility, although that is their primary purpose. Absolutely unchallenged “normality” is perhaps the most boring mode of discourse. One rarely finds it in Haydn, or in any imaginative or interesting composer. Rather it is the existence of norms that allows departures to become meaningful—and thereby expressive. In that sense, rules are made to be broken. [Vol. II, 532-533]

And yet our system of analysis is built around the activity of noticing similarities—not deviations—in different works. What would an alternative procedure of analysis look like?


  1. This fundamental flaw in the way analysis is presented, at least on the introductory levels, is something I have explicitly addressed in my graduate seminars for the last several years. When we first learn form, we learn the formal templates (rondo form, the skewed, oversimplified sonata-allegro form, etc.) and our analyses are considered successful if we show how any given piece can be made to fit the received template. We seek to demonstrate, in other words, the ways in which those pieces we hold to be masterworks by superior composers are . . . all the same. So a single Beethoven sonata, whether it is Op. 2/3 or Op. 110, becomes (unavoidably) “one of those Beethoven sonatas” in the minds of most students, the most brilliant and compositionally atypical Haydn string quartet becomes “one of those Haydn string quartets,” etc. We analyze unique, transformative works with flattening, two-dimensionalizing conceptual vocabulary.

    Yes, actually, I *do* have a problem with that. Chopin’s Ballades have provided, for a variety of reasons, fertile sites for the most wrong-headed, contrary analyses imaginable.

    Presuming that a productive analysis demonstrates (to paraphrase Ian Bent) “how it works,” what is needed are analytical frames of reference that acknowledge the templates, or the formal conventions, while foregrounding those elements unique to the work at hand. Thus what the reader learns is not how sonatas work but how, rather, Haydn’s “Big E-Flat” (it was No. 52 when I learned it; don’t know what it is now) works on its own and in witty counterpoint with what Jeffrey Kallberg has termed the “generic contract.” I have always found Leonard Ratner’s engagement with surface gesture and compositional strategy (topics and styles, rhetorical comparisons, ars combinatoria etc.) to be particularly useful for explaining the choices made in each individual work. There are several such analyses in Ratner’s *Classic Music: Expression, Form, and Style*, but my favorite virtuoso display of this approach is “Two Threads Through the Labyrinth: Topic and Process in the First Movements of K. 332 and K. 333,” by Ratner’s student Wye Jamison Allanbrook. This study appears in the Ratner Festschrift, *Convention in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Music* (Pendragon, 1992), and is a wonderfully illuminating demonstration of the different tools that can profitably be brought into the service of such analyses, while in no way presenting its methodology as an analytical template or “model.” (By the way, I would like to propose a moratorium on analytical models; they do more harm than good.)

  2. As only an amateur, I cannot state anything too formal. However, I would venture that all of western music is based on the tensions created by consonance/dissonance on many levels. For example, I just heard the Rite of Spring performed live last week, and while this piece was written over almost 100 years ago, its sounds like it was written yesterday. Leonard Bernstein stated that this piece has more dissonances, poly-rhythms, poly-tonalities, poly everything else you could ever ask for – yet it builds an incredible level of tension that is immediately perceivable by any listener. Bach’s famous Toccata in F (BWV 540) is along similar lines (although musically more tame for sure) – constantly tricking the listener into a resolving trend then whipping them into such a fury that is only released when its all over. I think there is not so much a need to state “here is the typical such-and-such form” but more along the lines of “here is how we create and dissipate tension by using such and such technique” and “how we can use these techniques in new ways”

  3. And yet, anthropologists and psychologists generally acknowledge that formal models are lodged in the human mind as archetypes, and as such serve as vehicles for meanings that are universally shared. Yes, I agree with Jonathan that demonstrating how all Haydn quartets and Beethoven sonatas are the same is pointless and defeating. Nevertheless, understanding the nature of the underlying patterns—not just the surface gestures—is a vital part of knowing how music conveys meaning. Without such patterns, music could not communicate at all, and so recognizing them and internalizing them is a part of any good musician’s training. Whether or not one consciously acknowledges the patterns as meaningful, one knows and responds to them, and it is only in light of such recognition that articulation of surface differences is heard as significant.

    I think this is what Jonathan is saying when he calls for “acknowledging the templates while foregrounding those elements unique to the work at hand.” Where I perhaps differ is in my belief that the templates are also profoundly meaningful. Hence, I tend to advocate forms of analysis that bring that meaning out and give it the centrality it deserves. One classic example is, of course, Tony Newcomb’s article on the Schumann 2nd symphony, which appeared in 19th-century Music about 25 years ago. Newcomb’s central thesis is that modern audiences completely misunderstand the work because they are hearing it in terms of the *wrong* formal patterns—hence the surface gestures appear incoherent and unconvincing. I’m not sure if Roger Norrington’s recording of the symphony with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart was a direct response to Newcomb’s article, but it is certainly the most convincing performance I have heard. Norrington appears to have internalized the work’s expressive deep structure effectively, and hence is able to make the surface gestures “speak.”

  4. Another component to this might have to do with our Romantic conception of organic unity as an organizational principle. When unification is a prerequisite for musical greatness, and proper Romantic organicism entails the meticulous interrelation of all parts into a seamless whole, then perhaps it’s no wonder analysts focus on sameness and patterns, not aberrations. What would Schenker be without underlying unity? (A good primer article on this: Ruth Solie, “The Living Work: Organicism and Music Analysis,” 19th-Century Music 4/2 (Autumn 1980): 147-156)

  5. Thanks, all, for the intriguing thoughts on this matter—and the citations. I have a feeling that many musicologists today share a sensitivity to this issue. The way Taruskin deals with analysis in the OHWM seems to me to be fruitful. He takes each piece and tells a lengthy analytical narrative, casting the piece as a drama without devolving to simple play-by-play.

    The onus is on the analyst—not a supposedly objective formal model—in such an approach. The reader relies on the analyst to know and communicate what is important in a piece. I know that I, at least, need more practice honing the skill of writing cogent, effective analyses…

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