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New Perspectives On Tonality

Daniel Harrison (Yale University), Chair

The Logic of Six-Based Minor for Harmonic Analyses of Popular Music

Trevor deClercq (Middle Tennessee State University)

bio for Trevor deClercq

Trevor de Clercq is Associate Professor in the Department of Recording Industry at Middle Tennessee State University, where he coordinates the musicianship curriculum and teaches coursework in audio theory and music technology. His research centers on the ways that contemporary popular music departs from traditional music theory concepts, often as shown through statistical methods. His Nashville Number System Fake Book was published in 2015 by Hal Leonard. He holds a PhD in music theory from the Eastman School of Music.


Harmonic analyses of popular music typically take the minor tonic to be Roman numeral “one.” By nature, this “one-based” approach requires a new numbering scheme when songs shift between relative key centers. Recent scholarship has argued, however, that popular music often involves ambiguity between relative tonalities, as exemplified in the “Axis” progression, if not sometimes a tonal fusion of two relative keys. I thus argue for the utility of a “six-based” approach to the minor tonic, where the minor tonic is taken to be ć. This six-based approach, common among practitioners of popular music as seen in the Nashville number system, avoids the forced choice of a single tonic, and it thus offers a consistent way to track chord function and behavior across shifts between relative key centers. After considering these shifts in a diatonic context on the levels of both phrase and song form, I posit that popular music involves three possible tonalities, together which form a “triple-tonic complex” akin to Stephenson’s three harmonic palettes: a major system, a parallel-minor system, and a relative-minor system. I conclude by considering how chromatic chords common in a major key, such as II and ęVII, correspond to their counterparts in the relative minor, IV and ęII, thereby collapsing the landscape of diatonic modes into three modal complexes. Overall, this paper serves to reveal the logic of six-based minor: why it is useful, what issues it resolves, and what types of insights it can afford us about harmonic syntax in popular music.

Supplementary Material(s)

Dual Leading-Tone Loops in Recent Multimedia

Brad Osborn (University of Kansas)


Ideas now fifty years old surrounding the “double-tonic complex” (Bailey 1969) and its kindred offshoots have received considerable attention in the past decade from popular music scholars (Capuzzo 2009, Schultz 2012, Rusch 2013, Ferrandino 2017, de Clercq 2019, Nobile 2020). Most of these contributions attempt to make sense of popular music’s propensity for pairing two relative keys whose roots lie a minor third apart. When these pairings share the same seven pitch classes (ABCDEFG, representing both A Aeolian and C major), I have previously argued that they should be considered “major until proven otherwise” (Osborn 2017, 150).  

In this paper I shed light on a tonal palette heard in recent multimedia scores (especially television dramas) that sounds a caveat to my “major until proven otherwise” theorem. These harmonic structures, which I dub dual leading-tone loops (DLTL), employ two different leading tones, one for the relative major and one for the relative minor. In presenting an eight-pitch-class palette (ABCDEFGGě) over a looping progression usually lasting just four chords, DLTLs exert a strong tonal pull toward both C major and A minor in short succession.

This indeterminate tonality, embracing multiple keys without foreclosing on either, provides the perfect accompaniment for recent multimedia works in which characters embody seemingly disparate ideas simultaneously. I demonstrate these emotionally multivalent DLTLs through the analysis of several multimedia works including Euphoria, A Handmaid’s Tale, Succession, The Leftovers, and the hit Broadway musical Hamilton.

Supplementary Material(s)

Plagal Orientation in Tonal Music: A Syntactic Approach

Gabriel Venegas-Carro (Universidad de Costa Rica)

Gabriel Navia (Universidade Federal da Integração Latino-Americana)


Due to epistemological priority given by the hegemonic musicological discourse to the classical canon and its aesthetic expectations, the prime role that institutionalized harmonic theory has bestowed on the major (triad and mode) and the tonic-dominant axis relegates the minor and the tonic-subdominant axis to a place of lesser prestige and structural importance. However, a large number of works emerging from influential tonal traditions such as the 19th-century European literate music and 20th- and 21st-century popular musics (e.g., Brazilian bossa nova and Latin American rock) conspicuously displays two forms of plagal drive: 1) higher-level tonal trajectories dramatized by a structural subdominant chord and 2) lower-level strategies that emphasize the subdominant. Developing from the premise that harmonic and syntactic functions are manifestations of different properties of tonality, and building upon a renewed interest in harmonic dualism as well as recent works by pop and rock-music scholars, this paper foregrounds the role of the plagal force in tonal music, laying out a system of principles, concepts, and analytical instruments that overflows the pervasive classical modeling of tonal hearing. By developing analytical tools that accommodate the idiosyncrasies of canonic and underrepresented repertoires within a broader tonal continuum, this paper seeks to appeal to analysts willing to embrace the richness of tonal music, thus ultimately contributing to the much-needed task of fostering diversity and inclusivity in current analytical, theoretical, and pedagogical musical practices.