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panicGUIDE - Part Two

Schenker's analytical model suggests that we can keep stripping away 'layers' of the music in order to find diminutions that span larger and larger sections of a piece. Schenker eventually formalised this model by distinguishing three different layers of a musical structure:

Foreground the surface of the music
Middleground depending how long a piece is, it will have a number of middleground layers that are progressively further from the surface
Background this layer of music lies furthest from the surface - a few simple progressions span the entire work

Schenkerian analysis is often seen as a reductive method - you reduce a piece of music from the detail of its surface to a few simple diminutions (or progressions) that lie deep beneath that surface. This is a fair way of describing how you do a Schenkerian analysis but it is a misrepresentation of Schenker's actual model of music.

Schenker's Generative Model
Understanding Schenkerian analysis as reduction implies what might be called a "top down" approach - you start at the surface and dig deeper to find increasingly simple diminutions. Schenker himself, however, preferred to describe his model of music from the bottom up.

He understood the foreground of tonal music as generated from the simple diminutions in the background. His theory makes much more sense this way round too - rules that seem arbitrary from a reductive point of view are more easily understood from a generative one.

Schenker's basic premise is that music is built up from very simple progressions in the background. The notes of these background progressions have diminutions such as neighbour notes added to them in successive layers. These diminutions only make sense if they are prolonging consonances that are behaving in the way set out in species counterpoint.

Towards the end of his career, Schenker increasingly came to believe that fully developed tonal music (roughly speaking from Bach to Brahms) was best understood as being generated from a very limited number of two-voice contrapuntal progressions.

He called these progressions the Ursatz (usually translated as 'fundamental structure') and set out a strict set of rules that governed how any piece of music could be understood as a prolongation of them. The background level of a piece of tonal music consists of a very simple prolongation of this fundamental structure.