Teaching Non-Functional Tonality - A Part-Writing Approach

Matthew Santa

Over the past two decades, many theorists have been inspired by the work of Hugo Riemann, applying a modern transformational approach that is commonly referred to as neo-Riemannian theory. This work seeks to explain chord progressions in what will be referred to here as non-functional tonality: music with a harmonic language that is tertian, but which is not reliant on fundamental bass progressions for its syntax. While the initial work by David Lewin has sparked an explosion of research, little of this research has been in the area of pedagogy. One notable exception is Nora Engebretsen and Per F. Broman's 2007 article in the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, which outlines and defends an introduction to neo-Riemannian theory within the context of an undergraduate theory curriculum. This article is similar in many ways, in that it also outlines an approach to introducing concepts associated with neo-Riemannian theory in an undergraduate theory curriculum, but the focus here will be on a graduated series of part-writing exercises governed by parsimonious voice leading rather than on the transformational analysis of triadic progressions. Further, while Engebretsen and Broman's approach to analysis involves the mastery of three different neo-Riemannian transformations, Tonnetz representation, binary generated cycles, and ternary generated cycles, this article will suggest an alternative approach to analysis that requires the mastery of fewer key concepts, and thus can be covered in a shorter span of time. Finally, while Engebretsen and Broman's approach dealt exclusively with major and minor triads, this article advocates an approach that also includes dissonant triads as well as seventh chords, and thus is applicable to a much wider range of musical contexts.