Teaching functional tonality

February 18, 2009

Most theory courses and books gently introduce the notion of secondary dominants, usual V/V, and carefully avoid musical examples that have it until that magical chord is introduced. I find that it keeps popping up and I have to be like the Wizard of Oz and say “don’t pay attention to this chord, we’ll discuss it later.”

Yesterday I had a cathartic moment regarding teaching secondary dominants. First I explained and illustrated how every diatonic chord can have its own dominant. They don’t necessarily mean you are changing keys, but can be inserted into a musical phrase as harmonic embellishments. I think they got it.

Then to go the other way, we analysed Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie Nr.1 where there is very little functional tonality, no secondary dominants, sevenths are (naughtily) not resolved, leading tones are ignored, and the home key is very unstable, barely convincing and can be either major or minor.

Planting the reality that there is no ultimate law that says that chords MUST do this or that, but that if one wants to imitate or evoke a particular musical style, one must adhere to harmonic and melodic practices from that period.

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