PopMAC Day 3: 42 years of Popular Music Analysis Teaching in 21 minutes #popmac


Tagg screenshotPopMAC Day 3: 42 years of Popular Music Analysis Teaching in 21 Minutes (2 years per minute). Philip Tagg #popmac

Philip accepts the ambitious timescale of today’s title, so states his intention to take an historical overview. Overview – Background and aim; ‘Tonality’; ‘Time’; ‘Totality’ or ‘form’; and ‘Que faire?’. He provides a brief CV in three acts – from practitioner and teacher with an increasing analytical approach since the 1970s. EPMOW articles came out 1998-2001 (encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World). He then notes the different undergraduate courses available (e.g. at Liverpool) – and highlights the problem of classification (using a wonderful ‘precipitation’ analogy). The history of tonal language, comparing variously ‘modal’, ‘pre-tonal’, ‘euroclassical’ and various arguably ‘post-tonal’ languages, which he asserts are not linear, observing that this is less a spectrum than an orbit as regards the analytical language of tonality.

Tonal terminology was naturally historically developed to define monometric music whose pitches divide tonally/chromatically into the octave, and that this is its strength and its limitation. We see some basic definitions with etymological language derivatives;

  • TONE (n): note with audible fundamental pitch
  • TONAL (adj): consisting or characteristic of tones
  • TONALITY (n): system of tonal configuration
  • TONIC: central reference tone in relation to which other tones in a piece or extract of music are audibly related.

The problem is that ‘Tonalité/tonalidad/tonalità actually means ‘key’. So he demands – PLEASE DISTINGUISH BETWEEN TONE AND TONIC. We then follow the linguistic derivation pattern (e.g. brutal/brutality, topic/topical and cleric/clerical) and he suggests the word TONICAL with TONICALITY or TONICISM. We now see some scales – including Ionian and phyrigian, plus Nawa athar (heptatonic); doh-pentatonic (anhemitonic); ré-pentatonic (anhemitonic) and hirajoshi (pos. 4: hemitonic, pentatonic). He asserts that all modes are by definition tonal.

We now look at the ‘chordal mystery category’, including triads, tetrads and pentatics, and speaks of ‘quartal’ chords that are (in Western classical terms) non-diatonic. He discusses the term TERTIAL harmony.

Let’s not confuse TONE with TONIC, nor TRIADS with THIRDS. Harmony basedon stacked fourths is quartal,  harmony based on stacked thirds is TERTIAL. TONAL v MODAL is a false contradiction. We must admit to a multiplicity of tonalities.

This is all about pitch; Philip apologises that there is ‘no time for time this time’ (although he briefly problematises and discusses terms such as syncopation, polyrhythm, polymetricity, cross-rhythm and ‘extended present)’. He speaks of the brain’s ‘tape echo’ and the idea of ‘balance of now time’ we have as listeners, calling for theories based on such demonstrable phenomena such as the extended present.

Finally we look at form, defined [OED] as “a shape or arrangement of parts”. But musical form means the diachronic passing and ordering of events; it is extensional. Form in art & nature is synchronic and intensional.

We are then treated to Philip’s wonderful meta-analysis of form via the theme for the TV show ‘Night Doctors’. Here it is in full, courtesy of his YouTube channel [JB note – Philip, like me, is a strong believer in open access publishing, ubiquitous availability of materials and Fair Use, so gave his permission for this to appear on the blog];

So what to do? Philip’s conclusion is that we could (should!) risk alienation from conservative musicology (ancient and modern) by making life easier for the popular majority of students through – Simple reform of basic terms; Recognition of vernacular musical competence; Cleaning up our own act. He advocates a collaborative approach will minimise the risk of producing new equally ethnocentric concepts. He calls for a new [max 100pp!] music theory primer for future students.

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