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Schenkerian Analysis: Working Method
Simple Summary | Stage One | Stage Two | Stage Three | Stage Four | Detailed Summary

Stage Two - Foreground Analysis
This stage of an analysis is about understanding how the surface of the music works. The idea is to identify linear units and harmonic units. This process is called diminution (this is briefly explained in panicGUIDE - part one)

Grouping pitches in this way is a bit like the unconscious process of interpreting speech - you group syllables into words so that instead of hearing a string of meaningless sounds you hear understandable words. Music is obviously abstract in a way that speech is not, but few people hear just a jumble of notes - we group the sounds into meaningful units. These units are surprisingly few in number and it is likely that we learn them as we listen to and play tonal music.

The harmonic units of music are probably familiar to you. They are the various triads identified by harmonic analysis - for example: I (the tonic), V (the dominant) etc. Schenker's theory of harmony is somewhat different to traditional theories but the chords he identifies are essentially the same.

Schenker's linear units (the fragments that make up melodies) may be slightly less familiar - each is said to prolong a harmonic unit. The main notes in each progression must be consonant with the harmonic unit they are prolonging (i.e. must be notes from that chord). The main linear units and the notes that must be consonant are as follows:

When you go on to study more complex pieces of music, you will need to be familiar with a range of further decorations that appear on the surface of the music. A simple example is the chromatic passing note, a more complex one is when the intervals of an unfolding are filled in with apparent linear progressions. There are more examples in the case studies section of this site and of course in the many offline textbooks available on Schenkerian analysis.

It is important to remember that linear units are equally important in both upper and lower parts.

Now look at the example below. I have taken the stripped down version from stage one and suggested where linear units prolong harmonic ones. Note that a slur brackets each linear unit and that each harmony is marked with a roman numeral. In this example every linear unit is also labelled - this is not strictly necessary but it might help clarify things in your mind if you do (see the notation guide for more details on presenting your analysis). There is a detailed commentary below the example.

The consonant skips at the beginning are fairly obvious but the extract is not all as straightforward as this. Note that:

  • harmonic units do not always start on the main beats of the bar - the return of over I occurs on the last quaver of the third bar.
  • the harmonic unit in the last bar has no linear unit prolonging it
  • as discussed previously, the first and last note of a linear progression must both be consonant with the chord being prolonged. The fifth progression above follows this rule (it is prolonging D flat - IV) but the last note of it appears to be part of a E flat dominant seventh chord. One of the advantages of Schenkerian analysis over traditional harmonic analysis is that its explanations are simpler and more logical. The analysis below explains the G in the bass on the second beat of bar three not as a second inversion dominant seventh but simply as a passing note between F and A flat. Schenker analyses music not in terms of complex successions of harmonies, but as the elaboration of simple two-part counterpoint as the next stage of the analysis shows.
Simple Summary | Stage One | Stage Two | Stage Three | Stage Four | Detailed Summary