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  • Explaining Tonality: Schenkerian Theory and Beyond
  • Catherine Pellegrino
Explaining Tonality: Schenkerian Theory and Beyond. By Matthew Brown. (Eastman Studies in Music.) Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005. [xix, 293 p. ISBN 1-58046-160-3. $99.] Music examples, figures, bibliography, index.

The title of Matthew Brown's Explaining Music: Schenkerian Theory and Beyond may mislead some readers who might be expecting a work that considers in some detail the significant corpus of music theory that has followed from Schenker's ground-breaking work of the early twentieth century. In fact, while this book does at times engage with some of the more significant scholars and theories of post-Schenker studies, its focus is solidly on explaining, and justifying, Schenker's own work.

Brown sets himself the task of answering three major questions: "[W]hat sorts of [pitch] relationships did Schenker count as tonal?; Why do these relationships work in some ways and not others?; Why should we prefer Schenker's theory of functional monotonality to its competitors?" (p. xiii) The heart of the book is Brown's answer to the last of these questions, which evaluates Schenkerian theory according to six criteria that theorists of any discipline use to evaluate competing theories: accuracy, scope, consistency, simplicity, fruitfulness, and coherence. By using the lens of these six elements, Brown attempts to bring his evaluation of Schenker's work into a somewhat elevated realm of logic and theory. In a field where the scholarly discourse can be heated and emotional, Brown's book is noteworthy for its dispassionate examination of the merits and shortcomings of Schenker's work. [End Page 90]

After an introduction that lays the theoretical groundwork in terms of definitions of laws and explanations, discusses various problems inherent in testing theories, and explains in detail what is meant by each of the six criteria, Brown proceeds to devote a chapter to each criterion. The first of these, and probably the most important, is accuracy. In order to discuss the accuracy of Schenker's theories, Brown takes a step back and examines what came before them, namely the principles of Fuxian counterpoint and functional harmony. Brown demonstrates how the laws of voice leading changed, even within Fux's own writings, depending on context and especially whether they describe a two-voice setting or a three- or four-voice texture. Brown explains that in re-crafting the principles of voice leading for functional tonal harmony, Schenker's theory has a greater degree of accuracy—that is, it can explain instances where great composers "break the rules" without having to resort to the non-explanatory cliché of the composer's "genius."

The second chapter addresses the issue of scope, by which Brown means the ability of a particular theory to explain a whole work, not just a single phrase or short section. Where chapter 1 explains pre-Schenkerian theory in capsule form, chapter 2 does the same for Schenkerian theory itself. Notable here is Brown's explanation (in the context of discussing the difference between the Ursatz and Fuxian species counterpoint) that Schenker's theoretical system of "prototypes, transformations, and levels" is both recursive and "rule-preserving" (p. 70). Brown's use of these terms suggests they would be extremely useful in teaching Schenkerian theory, especially to students having a difficult time understanding the interactions of the different levels.

Whereas the first two chapters were primarily theoretical and dependent on logic and the language of laws for their arguments, chapter 3, on consistency, gets into some actual musical analyses. It focuses on sequences, and Brown concludes that Schenker's treatment of parallel fifths and octaves is highly inconsistent: when they occur at the foreground, Schenker eliminates them by appealing to the middleground where they are absent. When they occur in the middleground, he refers to their absence in the foreground. Brown's explanation of sequences as being derived from the upper voices corresponds well with Schenker's discussions of specific passages in Der freie Satz.

Chapter 4 uses Schenker's writing on the subject of scales to demonstrate his theory's substantial simplification of the topic, as compared with previous theories. Scales constitute a chicken-and-egg problem for...