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SchenkerGUIDE: Guide to Schenkerian analysis logo

What is Schenkerian analysis?

Heinrich Schenker (1868-1935) was an Austrian musician who developed a a highly influential theory of tonal music that is still taught in many universities worldwide. His analytical approach involves looking beneath the immediate surface of music in order to understand how it connects up into larger spans.

Instrumental tutors often ask their students to think more carefully about the direction and shape of the phrases that they are playing; on the most basic level, Schenker's ideas are a formalisation of this intuition that music should not be understood simply as a series of notes, but in terms of larger-scale shapes and patterns.

The basic method of Schenkerian analysis is to show how music can be grouped into elaborations such as auxiliary (or neighbor) notes, passing note progressions and arpeggios. What is revolutionary is his suggestion that these patterns are not just on the surface of the music but that they also span much larger passages.

In the example below, you can see how a passing-note progression in the right hand from Bb to G spans this short passage. The first note of this progression is decorated on the 'surface' of the music by a two-note arpeggiation and the second is decorated by a similar figure plus a rising passing note progression. The overall progression (marked with beams and stems) connects these surface elaborations into a single descending span.

Schenkerian theory in this way proposes that music is made up of various layers. The surface layer of the music can be understood as the elaboration of a simpler layer (in this case a descending third) beneath that surface. A Schenkerian analysis continues this process in order to find still deeper layers; much longer passages than this example can thus be understood as elaborations of simple underlying progressions. The surface of the music is called the foreground, the deepest layer the background and those layers of elaborations in between are referred to as the middleground.

An important feature of Schenkerian analysis is that it shows how melodic figures are elaborations of harmonies. The first figure in the left hand, for example, arpeggiates an Eb major tonic triad. In the same way, but on a larger scale, the descending passing-note progression in the right hand elaborates the underlying tonic harmony.

The basic ideas behind Schenkerian theory are very simple, but the process of analysis can get quite complicated, largely because music itself is complex. Schenkerian analysis can take a while to master, but you will find that it provides richly rewarding insights into the shape and structure of tonal music.

Schenker is probably most notorious for his suggestion that musical works can ultimately be understood as elaborations of a basic model that he called the Ursatz. This two-voice structure may seem overly reductive, but it forms that basis for an analytical approach that emphasizes the essential simplicity of tonal music, showing how pieces are basically contrapuntal elaborations of a tonic chord. The point is not that we can reduce a piece of music to the Ursatz, but that we can explore the complexities of the piece by seeing them in relation to this simple model. The emphasis, then, is not on the reductions of the analyst but the elaborations of the composer. Like many other analytical models (e.g. sonata form), Schenker's Ursatz offers a simplified model of musical structure which we can use to examine what composers actually write.

The Ursatz

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© Copyright Thomas Pankhurst