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Provincializing Western Art Music Syntaxes

Chris Stover (Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University), Anna Yu Wang (Harvard University), Organizers; Michael Tenzer (University of British Columbia), Noriko Manabe (Temple University), Co-Chairs

Musical syntax is often the conceptual bedrock of analysis, providing what might be perceived as law-like givens which structure and delimit the scope of acceptable analytical insights. This proposed Special Session seeks to illuminate some ways in which Western music theory’s received ideas about musical syntax—which have been overwhelmingly deduced from the close study of Western Art Music—exclude the musical realities of diverse audiences and practitioners, and actually impede deep analytical engagement with music on terms that are not Western. The papers compiled here spotlight various issues of syntax that animate the theories and practices of musics beyond the West. Each poses a challenge to, and thereby provincializes, the syntactic principles commonly held as axiomatic or near-axiomatic among Western music theorists. In so doing, we aim to persuade music theorists to think reflexively about the contingent and local nature of the theoretical assumptions that undergird our research and teaching. This session comprises of two sets of three papers. Each of the papers in the first set provincializes an aspect of pitch-related syntax in Western Art Music by engaging with Japanese, South Indian, and Chinese scalar and tonal concepts. The second set of papers speak to syntaxes of musical temporality by examining rhythm and/or metric processes in Mennonite folk songs, African drum-dance traditions, and Chinese opera. In order to inspire a richer conversation about how to figure WAM musical syntax as simply one of many provincial music practices, each half-session will be followed by 30 minutes of dialogue.

Three Views of Western Tonality: Successive Provincialization in the Orchestral Works of Yamada Kōsaku

Liam Hynes-Tawa (Yale University)

bio for Liam Hynes-Tawa

Liam Hynes-Tawa is a music theorist currently teaching at Yale University, with specializations in modern Japanese and Renaissance European forms of tonality. This research usually involves trying to figure out how irreconcilable ways of thinking about pitch have dealt with each other, as well as the entertainingly vexing question of what modes and keys even are. Liam has earned a BA in Music and East Asian Studies from Brown University, a PhD in Music Theory from Yale University, and recent publications in the journals Intégral and Analytical Approaches to World Music.


Like many non-Western composers who came of age in a world threatened by Western dominance and colonialism, the Japanese composer Yamada Kōsaku (山田耕筰, 1886–1965) originally trained along Western lines, under German composers. As he grew in fame and security, however, he pioneered an approach in which traditional Japanese elements would over time be incorporated into, and eventually displace, Western syntax. This process was by no means straightforward—how can one provincialize Western syntax in a tradition whose very prestige value rests on its Westernness?

This paper investigates the evolution of Yamada’s strategy across three symphonic works. These works show a steady progression of moving “Japanese”-signifying elements from a position of ornamental window-dressing to one of central structural importance, which in turn displaces Western tonal syntax from its central position to a subsidiary one. Triumph and Peace (1912) is a four-movement symphony in the Austro-German tradition with only a brief nod to anything traditionally Japanese, Inno Meiji (1921) is a symphonic poem that incorporates gagaku-based pitch material more substantially while still being often driven by Western syntax, and the Nagauta Symphony “Tsurukame” (1934) completely overturns the previous pieces’ hierarchies by fitting a Western-style accompaniment to a pre-existing Japanese theatre song, allowing the latter to dictate the proceedings. I demonstrate that as we progress in time through Yamada’s works, an analyst must increasingly allow Western harmonic analysis to give way to concepts from traditional Japanese music in order to make any sense of them.

Supplementary Material(s)

Carnatic Elucidations of Structure and Expression in Hollywood’s Scales

Scott Murphy (University of Kansas)


Scholarship by Jeff Pressing, Dmitri Tymoczko, Ewan Clark, and myself collectively claims that the seven “Pressing” scale types account for significant portions of the modernist macroharmonic substrate in post-1900 Western art music, film music, and jazz. Unsurprisingly, these Western scholars explicitly or implicitly define Pressing scales using a prevailing Western music-theoretic approach to post-1900 modernist music: atonal set theory. However, the framework that undergirds the 72 mēḷakarta ragas of South Indian Carnatic music provides a fit for modernist scales in much contemporary Western film that is tighter, more elegant, and more suggestive of further research than what Western set theory can offer, in no fewer than five ways. First, they account for cinema’s pervasive use of what Daniel Harrison calls “dronality,” which serves as a vital component in Indian music, but to which the Pressing designation is indifferent. Second, they accommodate just the right blend of dihemitonicism and andihemitonicism that many contemporary soundtracks indulge. Third, they leave out certain modes of Pressing scales that film composers tend to avoid. Fourth, some composers draw explicitly from this specific non-Western source. Fifth, the tonic-dependent combinatorial structure of mēḷakarta classification, unlike the Pressing system’s tonic-independent and set-theoretical classification, neatly suggests a component-wise approach to Western scale semiotics. In this approach, the scale-degree pairs of {♭2,2}, {♭3,3}, {4,♯4}, {♭6,6}, and {♭7,7} each map to an extra-musical contrariety and together constitute a “5-bit semiotic byte” that captures a wide range of associative and expressive nuance. 

On “Pien” (Biàn 變) Tonality

Ian Quinn (Yale University)


The concept of “pien” was broadcast into Western music-theoretic discourse by Hugo Riemann to remap the diatonic scale according to a principle known to Chinese theorists for millennia as wu sheng er bian 五聲二變 (“five proper notes and two altered notes”). Riemann introduced pien in a novel account of pentatonic tonality in which the “extra” two notes of the diatonic scale are analogous to chromatic notes in a system of modulations. Riemann’s pien theory failed to catch on, due to a tendency to exoticize, orientalize, and primitivize the pentatonic, and to portray “pien tonality” as a less evolved system. 

The basic structure of Western staff notation all too easily affords a view of pentatonic formations as “gapped,” deficient, and primitive. Seeing a potential for a radical rehearing of pitch space through a pentatonic lens, both Riemann and his devotee Joseph Yasser developed novel analytic notations. Yasser’s version, in which staff lines and spaces operate as placeholders for pentatonic rather than diatonic scale members, presents the politically intriguing possibility of a notation in which diatonic structures are marked by overburdening a pentatonic framework. The hierarchy is inverted: pentatonic scales aren’t gapped, and diatonic scales are supernumerary. 

This talk modifies Yasser’s notation, using color to indicate pitch alterations, renotating examples by Tran Van Khe on pentatonic modulation in Vietnamese classical music, and from work on “pien tonality” in Western repertories. Finally, a set of exercises will illustrate the pedagogical possibilities of a notation system built from the pentatonic perspective.

Irregular to whom? Segmentation, grouping, and “irregular” phrase lengths in Klassen’s Plautdietsch folk song collection

Grant Sawatzky (University of British Columbia)


Within the Western common-practice canon it is generally accepted that four-measure phrases are prototypical, and non-quadruple phrase lengths are transforms (expansion, overlap, etc.) of underlying quadruple prototypes. This paper asks: under what circumstances should four-measure normativity apply to/guide analysis of other tonal repertoires? That this question has not warranted much attention is evidence of the extent to which prevailing approaches to phrase rhythm are comfortable in accepting quadruple basic-phrases as a “natural” proportion with explanatory power for a wide range of tonal repertoires. 

This study considers an anthology of Plautdietsch (low-German) transcriptions collected from Mennonite communities in the 19th and early-20th centuries (Klassen, 1989). While four-measure structures abound, and about 2/3 of the melodies have a total number of measures that is a multiple of four, those factors, alone, are not sufficient evidence to conclude that all/most non-quadruple phrases derive from quadruple prototypes. By analyzing melodic grouping, gestalt segmentation, and melodic reductions, I demonstrate how an “irregular” tune’s phrase-rhythmic particularity can be meaningfully described without reference to quadruple prototype.

To listeners familiar with the tonal common-practice idiom, the Plautdietsch folk-tunes likely sound relatively conventional. However, many of the peasant-farmer-cum-political-refugees who sang these tunes intentionally kept limited contact with the outside world, and thus had little direct knowledge of the notated music of 18th-century Europe—why should we assume phrase-length norms of that repertoire are relevant here? In assuming “naturalness” of four, we overlook or deny the relevance of novel forms and schemes that might better characterize this repertoire’s phrase-structural types. 

Supplementary Material(s)

“Proto-Structure” and “Anti-Structure”: Against Teleology in African Musical Processes

Chris Stover (Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University)


Anthropologist Victor Turner has theorized how rites of passage function as spacetimes of radical flux, ever “betwixt and between” as he famously put it. He introduces the term liminoid to describe liminal-like phenomena expressing what he calls a “proto-” or “anti-structure,” a structure without an underlying norm that operates by “generat[ing] a plurality of alternative models … capable of influencing behaviors … in the direction of radical change.” This resonates with what poet and theorist Léopold Sédar Senghor characterizes as a dynamic, ever-inventive and proliferating rhythmic repetition that flows across diverse African artistic practices.

Similarly, philosopher Tseney Serequeberhan argues against teleology by inverting the Western creative impetus such that, for example, an African drum-dance performance—always a product of collaborative improvised elaboration of relatively fixed material—is continually “projecting itself out of its effective past … in a constant process of self-interpretation and … re-interpretation.” The future of any performance is unknown, negotiated among participants, and animated by a spirit of play. Play functions as a conceptual foil to the teleological working-out of a predetermined idea. Because most African drum-dance musics are cyclic and quasi-repetitive, every performance continually invents or reveals new adumbrational possibilities.

This paper challenges the centrality of formal coherence as a signifier of musical value. Focusing on an ensemble performance from the Central African Republic, it shows how while every new event relates backward to earlier moments in the performance that helped determine its emergent identity, the question of what happens next always remains open and contingent.

Perceiving banyan: Temporal Syntax Unbeholden to Meter

Anna Yu Wang (Harvard University)


From as early as Johann Kirnberger’s The Strict Art of Musical Composition, Western thought about musical time has claimed that temporal periodicity and musical salience are fundamentally interlinked—that the ear inevitably expects, even proactively imagines, salient musical events to occur at equally spaced intervals of time. However, this model of temporal experience does not meaningfully account for much of Sinitic music, in which phenomenal accents can eschew a sense of metric pattern without being heard as a syntactic disturbance. This paper delves into the limitations of a Western intuition for musical time and its associated metric constructs (e.g. time signatures, hypermeters, syncopations) by exploring the ontology and cultural ethos surrounding 板眼banyan—a metric construct that divides music into cyclical groupings of equal pulses called ban and yan. Drawing on listener testimonies collected during my fieldwork on 黄梅戏huangmei opera and 歌仔戲koa-a opera in China and Taiwan, I attend to how local audiences make sense of temporal structures in which accents appear to vacillate freely in spite of a periodic banyan framework. I then account for structural phenomena that arise out of the uncoupling of periodicity and accentual hierarchy, including Sinitic opera’s wealth of uneven phrase rhythms. I posit that banyan illuminates a context of listening in which temporal syntax is grounded not in the desire for symmetry and the ability to anticipate salient events, but rather in 1) the aestheticization of linguistic sound and syntax, and 2) a philosophy of changeability.