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SchenkerGUIDE: Guide to Schenkerian analysis logo


The SchenkerGUIDE glossary gives brief definitions of the most common English and German terms used by Schenkerian analysts. If you have the SchenkerGUIDE handbook, the following table also provides page numbers on which you can find more information.
Arpeggiation Brechung An arpeggiation is one of the simplest elaborations, consisting only of notes that are consonant with the harmony being prolonged. An arpeggiation is defined as single movement through notes from one harmony in the same direction.

An arpeggiation can only prolong a triad but there is one exception - the dominant seventh chord. This chord is so ubiquitous in tonal music that in many circumstances it makes sense to treat it as a consonant sonority like the triad.

Background Hintergrund Strictly speaking, the background refers only to the Ursatz form that spans a whole piece or movement. It is used more informally to refer to the Ursatz and its immediate prolongations (e.g. initial ascent etc) that are more properly part of the first level of the middleground .
Bass Arpeggiation Bassbrechung The Bassbrechung translates literally as ‘breaking of the bass’, but is more often referred to as the bass arpeggiation. The Bassbrechung is the I-V-I that underpins the Urlinie as part of the Ursatz , including any elaborations of this pattern. The basic harmonic progression is elaborated contrapuntally, typically creating harmonic patterns such as I-III-V-I or I-II-V-I.
Composing-out Auskomponierung Auskomponierung literally translates as ‘composing out’, reflecting Schenker’s interest in a process of elaboration from the deep structure of a piece to its surface. The term refers to contrapuntal elaboration – the Ursatz represents an Auskomponierung of the tonic.
Consonant Skip [N/A] A consonant skip is a term invented by Allen Forte and used by some Schenkerians to refer to simple two-note arpeggiations , which usually constitute some sort of unfolding .
Coupling Koppelung A coupling is a change of register within one voice that connects two pitches one or more octaves apart. In relation to the Ursatz it is subtly different from a transfer register transfer . While the latter simply transfers a note of the Urlinie (or one of its elaborations) into a different octave, a coupling involves several such changes of octave, which combine to create a long-term connection between the two registers. A coupling, therefore, is made up of a number of register transfers .
Diminution [N/A] A term used to describe the embellishment of simpler musical structures beneath the surface of the music. The process of analysis is partly one of looking ‘behind’ the surface diminutions, but Schenker was more interested in a process of generation from background to foreground .
Dividing Dominant Oberquint-Teiler Dividing dominant is the term for the structural chord V that underpins the first of an interrupted Urlinie . The term is also used to refer to dominant chords that perform a similar function in the middleground .
First-level Middleground Mittelgrund The first-level middleground refers to the immediate prolongations of the Ursatz . Schenker restricts such prolongations to a small number of strictly defined forms. Elaborations at this level of the structure are often informally referred to as the background .
Foreground Vordergrund Schenker conceives of music in terms of layer layers of elaboration from the ‘deep’ structure to the surface. A foreground analysis is concerned with the surface layer of the music.
Harmonic Unit [N/A] The term harmonic unit is used in SchenkerGUIDE to refer to a harmonic progression that is grouped together in the process of analysis. The most common harmonic units are I-V-I, I-V, V-I, which can be elaborated by other chords (e.g. I-VI-II-V-I). Harmonic units are linked with melodic elaborations into 'linear-harmonic units' in the process of layer layer analysis. A third progression, for example, might be said to elaborate the harmonic unit of I-V-I.
Initial Ascent Anstieg An initial ascent is a rising linear progression to the primary tone (or Kopfton) of the Urlinie (i.e. or ) and, as a very deep level elaboration of the urlsatz Ursatz , might span many bars. The initial ascent is one of the most common constituents of the first level of the middleground .
Interruption Unterbrechung An interruption is an elaboration of the Ursatz in which the Urlinie descends to / V, returns to the Kopfton and begins the descent to again. An interrupted Urlinie from would thus read as follows: || . Note the double vertical line that is used to indicate the point of interruption. This is one the most important Ursatz elaborations because it creates a structural division on the dominant at the point of interruption ( / V) that frequently corresponds to the end of the A section of binary (and indeed sonata) form pieces. In orthodox Schenkerian theory the interruption after is the only possible division of the Urlinie.
Unsupported Stretch Leerlauf In an Urlinie that descends from , the is theoretically dissonant with the I over which it appears in the background. Schenker thus calls the background motion from to the ‘unsupported stretch’, because there is no harmonic support for the . One of the criteria for deciding whether a piece is a descent from is whether this theoretically dissonant receives harmonic support in the middleground and foreground. If there is no harmonic support for and it therefore remains dissonant in the foreground, then the piece is more likely to be a descent from . A descent from obviously has a much more complicated unsupported stretch, which is why it is so rare.
Layer or level Schicht The idea that music consists of a series of layers of elaboration is fundamental to Schenkerian theory. Schenker suggests that the 'surface' of the music is underpinned by simpler layers in roughly the way in which a variation is underpinned by a theme.

Many scholars translate Schenker’s term Schicht as ‘level’ but ‘layer’ would be an equally effective rendering of this term. Schenkerian analysts refer to a graph as a depiction of a particular layer of the structure, although it is rare for a graph to show only one layer of elaborations.

Linear progression Zug A linear progression is the Schenkerian term for a passing note elaboration that elaborates a specific harmony in the middleground or foreground. Its first and last notes must make sense of the harmony at the goal of the progression. A linear progression moves in only one direction and is therefore classified either as ascending or descending.

Schenker understands a linear progression as the unfolding unfolding of a two-note interval made up of its initial and final note - it is the interval between these notes that gives a linear progression its name.

Middleground Mittelgrund The foreground is the surface layer of a piece of music and the background is the deepest layer, of which the whole piece is understood to be an elaboration. The middleground is the variable number of intervening layers that a Schenkerian analysis will identify between the foreground and background.
Mixture Mischung Schenker most often uses the term mixture to refer to alternation between the major and minor third in a tonic triad. Mixture is a common feature of the first level middleground and is easiest to illustrate by way of an example. Imagine that a minuet in A major is interpreted as a descent from and that the trio section is in A minor. The overall shape of such a minuet might be as follows:
# (Minuet) natural (Trio) # (repeat of Minuet)
Obligatory Register Obligate Lage Schenker suggests that, if a piece starts in a given register, we expect it to also conclude in that same register. The principle of obligatory register ultimately relates to the Urlinie in that a Schenkerian analyst will usually expect to find the final descent to in the same octave that was established by the Kopfton.
Primary tone Kopfton The Kopfton (lit. head tone) is the first note of the Urlinie (i.e. , or ). Decisions about whether the Kopfton is or can make a considerable difference to the rest of an analysis. If the Urlinie is elaborated by, for example, an initial ascent, the Kopfton will not be right at the beginning of the piece.
Prolongation [N/A] Prolongation refers to the elaboration of contrapuntal structures. All tonal pieces are therefore, in Schenkerian terms, a prolongation of the Ursatz.
Register Transfer Hoherlegung (up) Teiferlegung (down) A register transfer simply means a change of octave. It is important, however, in describing the relationship of surface embellishments to the underlying simpler progressions that they prolong. A middleground descending third progression, for example, might be elaborated in the foreground by one or more of its notes being transferred up or down an octave. Register transfers are often found in relation to the notes of the Urlinie. See the definition of Coupling to see how this subtly differs from a register transfer.
Cadential six-four [N/A] A cadential six-four is a double appoggiatura onto the dominant chord – the numbers refer to the figured bass pattern of a sixth and a fourth over the root of the dominant falling to a fifth and third. Some traditional systems of harmonic analysis label the cadential six-four as a second inversion tonic chord – this is not exactly wrong, but it is a less accurate description of its function. The double appoggiatura onto the dominant is a particular hallmark of the Classical style.
Unfolding Ausfaltung An unfolding literally unfolds a two-note chord, moving from either from upper voice to lower or the other way round. Unfoldings are often found in conjunction with other types of elaboration, such as linear progressions.
Fundamental descent Urlinie The Urlinie (or fundamental line) is the top line of the two-part Ursatz , comprising a stepwise descent from , or to . The term is usually translated as 'fundamental descent' reflecting Schenker's belief that this archetypal descending motion underpins all tonal pieces.
Fundamental structure Ursatz The Ursatz (or fundamental structure) is the archetypal progression of which all tonal pieces are hypothetically an elaboration. It consists of descending line in the upper part (Urlinie) over a bass progression (Bassbrechung).
Motion From Inner Voice Untergreifen Schenker uses this term to refer to a linear progression that ascends to a note of the Urlinie. Because a linear progression is understood as the unfolding of a two-note chord outlined by first and last notes, an ascending linear progression is said to move from the lower (or inner) voice of this chord to the upper voice. In the first level middleground, Schenker suggests that linear progressions can only ascend to or descend from notes of the Urlinie. A motion from the inner voice to the Kopfton is usually referred to as an Initial ascent.
Neighbour Note Nebennote A neighbor note elaborates a note of a chord through stepwise motion to and/or from a dissonance. A complete neighbor note moves stepwise a dissonance and back again. An incomplete neighbor note can either move from the dissonance to the consonance or the reverse.
Reaching-Over Uebergrifen The concept of reaching over depends on Schenker’s understanding of tonal music as being made up of different voices. If a melodic line leaps upwards and then falls by step to the next main note of the melody, it is said to be 'reaching over' the principal voice.
Scale Degree [N/A] Numbered degrees of the scale from to . Such caretted numbers refer back to the scale of the main key unless otherwise stated. Usually, scale degree labels are reserved for notes of the Urlinie.
Scale Step Stufe Schenker uses the term scale step to refer to the principal steps of the Bassbrechung (the bass part of the Ursatz). If the Bassbrechung basically outlines the progression I-III-V-I then these chords would be considered scale steps whereas, for example, a secondary dominant onto III would not. The term thus distinguishes between diatonic structural harmonies and chords which are understood as embellishments of those harmonies.
Third Divider Terztieler Schenker uses this term to refer to the elaboration of the Bassbrechung through III, with the resulting bass progression of I-III-V-I. The third divider is particularly important in minor keys, in which there is often considerable prolongation of III as the relative major.
Tonicization [N/A] Tonicization is the Schenkerian term for what is traditionally called modulation. If a piece modulates from the tonic to the dominant, Schenker refers to this as a tonicization of V. The use of this term emphasizes the fact that a tonal piece is ultimately understood as a contrapuntal realization of the tonic.
Voice exchange Stimmentausch A voice exchange is where two voices exchange notes from the same chord. An example would be where a top voice moved from E down to C whilst a lower voice moved from C up to E an octave lower. In this circumstance the two voices have literally exchanged notes from the chord of C major. A voice exchange involves simultaneous unfoldings in two different voices.
Register transfer (descending) Teiferlegung See entry on Register transfer for definition.
Passing note Durchgang Most passing note progressions are understood by Schenkerian analysts as Linear Progressions (see separate entry). In order to be a true linear progression, however, the passing note must be able to be understood as the elaboration of a harmony. A passing note right at the foreground (surface) of a piece of music may not always fulfil this condition. Examples might be a chromatic passing note or a note that connects two surface harmonies.
Initial (or first order) arpeggiation N/A An initial arpeggiation is a decoration of the Kopfton in which it is approached by way of a rising arpeggiation. As with an ascent initial ascent , the initial arpeggiation is considered a part of the first-level middleground (i.e. at the deepest level of the structure).
Compound melody [N/A] A compound melody is where a single melodic line skips between the notes of a harmony. An obvious example can be found in the arpeggiations of an Alberti bass, which implies three voices as it repeatedly skips between the notes from each chord. As discussed in the handbook, there are many other more subtle instances of a melodic voice implying several voices.
Cover tone Deckton A cover tone is where the main voice (of the Urlinie) is 'covered' by a higher voice. The Urlinie thus appears in a middle voice.

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