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Stage four summary
(background analysis)

[previous stage / introduction]

The process of identifying elaborations beneath the surface in stage three is usually repeated several times in order to explore successively deeper layers of the musical structure. Stage four is in a sense a continuation of this process, but just as we are looking for particular types of elaborations on the surface (neighbor note etc.), Schenker proposes a standard model that can be found in various guises on the deepest level of the music (the background).

Schenker's background model (the Ursatz) consists of an descending upper voice (the Urlinie) counterpointed against a bass progression (the Bassbrechung). This is discussed in detail in Chapter 3 of the SchenkerGUIDE handbook.

The following offers a very rough summary of the process of background analysis:

  • Identify a convincing Urlinie descent and Bassbrechung
    • the Urlinie must descend diatonically to by step from one of three possible Kopftone (head tones): , or .
    • once a scale degree of the Urlinie is established, the descent can only continue down - it cannot return to previous scale degrees (although this does not mean that or for example cannot be elaborated by a large scale neighbor note). The exception is the interruption which can only occur after and always returns to the original Kopfton. for an Urlinie from or to be convincing each note of the descent must be properly supported harmonically and contrapuntally.
  • Explore the possibility of standard elaborations of the Ursatz in the first-level middleground (i.e. directly prolonging the notes of the Urlinie and Bassbrechung), such as initial ascent or interruption.

A few bars would not normally be analysed in terms of its potential background structure, because such structures usually span whole pieces. However, shorter passages quite often can be understood as elaborations of the Ursatz as shown in the example below.


  • The Urlinie is marked with upwards stems and beams and each note of the descent is labeled according to which degree of the scale it represents in relation to the home key these scale degrees are marked with a caret (^) so that they can clearly be distinguished from other numbers on the score
  • The Bassbrechung (I-V-I) is marked with downwards stems and beams connecting the root notes of these chords
  • Interruptions are marked with a double slash after the
  • Elaborations involving changes of register can be clarified with arrows and dotted slurs
  • Elaborations involving changes of voice can be clarified with stems, beams and arrows as appropriate.

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© Copyright Thomas Pankhurst