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Salons 1 & 2 • Friday morning, 9:00–12:00

Tonality in Rock

Nicole Biamonte (McGill University), Chair

Matthew E. Ferrandino (University of Kansas) 

Multi-Centric Complexes in Rock

Drew Nobile (University of Oregon) 

Double-Tonic Complexes in Rock Music

Mark Richards (Florida State University)

Multimodality and Tonal Ambiguity in Rock's Aeolian Progression

Brian D. Hoffman (Cincinnati, OH) 

Mapping the Modulation Zone: A Formal and Stylistic Study of Stepwise Modulation in Pop-Rock

Abstracts

Multi-Centric Complexes in Rock

Matthew E. Ferrandino (University of Kansas)

Recent research in the analysis of rock music has focused on reconciling harmonic idioms unique to popular music with traditional functional models. Whether through theories of modal tonalities, weak or absent tonics, or through syntactical definitions of function, such analyses achieve varying degrees of success because they are interpreted through a single overarching tonic. I instead propose to explore concurrent pitch centers that occur in rock music by modifying Guy Capuzzo’s (2009) sectional centricity, a theory that accounts for multiple non-hierarchical pitch centers within a song. While Capuzzo’s method accounts for multiple pitch centers between sections, I instead look at pieces where multiple pitch centers are suggested simultaneously within a section. Such examples I refer to as multi-centric complexes, adapted from Robert Bailey’s (1985) double-tonic complex.

Pitch centers can be determined by three dimensions of music: melody, harmony, and bass, and although bass and harmony work in tandem in most cases, each may independently suggest a different pitch center—what I call bass-harmonic split. The most common types of multi-centric complexes are contrapuntal examples where the melody and bass suggest a different pitch center with minimal functional harmony, what I call melodic-bass split. Cases where melody and functional harmony suggest different pitch center, I call a harmonic-melodic split. I explore three different examples of multi-centric complexes from a diverse body of rock music from the past half-century. These examples highlight the complexity of rock music, which when considered under the lens of multi-centric complex reveals a rich, nuanced, harmonic structure.

Double-Tonic Complexes in Rock Music

Drew Nobile (University of Oregon)

Many rock songs have a puzzling feature: despite ostensibly simple harmonic structures, it is not entirely clear what key they are in. The standard analytical response to these situations is to claim ambiguity or competition among the possible key centers and frame a narrative interpretation around this ambiguity. However, the assumption of monotonality in the rock repertoire bears examination, especially the notion that the absence of a single pitch center implies conflict. Might rock tonality allow for multiple tonal centers to exist not in conflict but as equal members of a governing tonal structure?

In this paper, I propose that some seemingly ambiguous rock songs exhibit the theoretical structure known as the “double-tonic complex.” Not just “tonal pairing”—the alternation of two equally weighted keys—but a true Robert Bailey-style double tonic: a four-note sonority built from the union of two third-related triads acting as prolonged tonic. Though the double-tonic complex has proven controversial in 19th-century scholarship, rock music’s particularities provide a ripe environment for double-tonic structures, with its common use of seventh chords as stable harmonies and Aeolian modality. I investigate three double-tonic situations: 1) a surface intertwining of two relative keys such that both tonics act simultaneously as gravitational centers; 2) multi-section works in which each of the two keys is central for portions but neither emerges as the global tonic; and 3) songs with looped chord progressions that do not settle on a particular tonic.

Multimodality and Tonal Ambiguity in Rock's Aeolian Progression

Mark Richards (Florida State University)

While rock’s Aeolian progression has been described by Biamonte (2010), Everett (2009), and Moore (1992), among others, as residing in the Aeolian mode as bVI-bVII-i, its conflation with a major-mode interpretation of IV-V-vi and the tonal ambiguity that results have not been discussed in any great detail. Because rock generally lacks raised leading tones and regularly draws on several different modes, a single diatonic collection can be the source of multiple tonalities. Tonal ambiguity in the Aeolian progression particularly can arise in two ways: 1) when the progression or the phrase in which it occurs lacks an initial tonic harmony of either the major or Aeolian mode, and 2) when the surrounding passages waver between different tonal centers, usually major and Aeolian. When the progression entails such multimodal possibilities, the tonality is generally clarified through the melodic structure of the progression. More specifically, a particular mode is favored when notes of its tonic triad are emphasized by any of several means. In such situations, the progression encompasses aspects of more than one mode even when a single mode is heard to dominate. Thus, rather than view these ambiguous progressions entirely in one mode or another, such an approach aims to characterize their tonal fluidity in a way not easily captured by Roman numerals.

This paper attempts to demonstrate that, while rock’s harmonies themselves are often mere triads that are strung together into simple repeated loops, hearing tonality in the progressions they form can be an engaging, complicated, and fascinating affair.

Mapping the Modulation Zone: A Formal and Stylistic Study of Stepwise Modulation in Pop-Rock

Brian D. Hoffman (Cincinnati, OH)

Modulations by tone or semitone are widely recognized as a common stylistic element of pop-rock songs but many scholars have casually described them with mechanical terms such as “truck-driver modulation” or “pump-up modulation.” In place of this view, I frame modulation as an element of pop-rock music that is compositionally constructed through texture, harmony, and rhythmic energy gain. These modulations occur as part of a formal zone that overlaps with other, more traditional, formal sections (the modulation zone).

To begin, I outline historical trends in stepwise modulation based on my study of nearly 400 modulating Billboard Top 100 songs spanning 1950–2010. I then define the modulation zone and its constituent parts based on the seam between one key and the next. Dai Griffiths and Adam Ricci have recently published scholarship detailing this seam. Following these preliminaries, I outline four specific modulation zone based on compositional strategy and demonstrate the utility of these strategies beyond mere labelling. By rethinking how pop-rock songs enact their modulations, this paper establishes a new perspective that recognizes a well-established set of stylistic signs and idioms apart from the obvious stark juxtaposition of two keys.