What's the point of Schenkerian Analysis Today?
Even in a simple piece of piano music, the ear is presented with a vast number of notes, many of them played simultaneously. How do we make sense of all this information? The situation is analagous to that found in language.
Here is a collection of eight syllables:
"The student loathed analysis"
If someone heard the above sentence, presuming they understand English, they will not just hear eight random, unconnected sounds. They will (almost unconsciously) form relationships between the various types of sound in their minds in order to make sense of them.
At the most basic level they will group "stu" and "dent" together as a unit so that they hear a sequence of words. They must also understand relationships across a longer time span such as that between "student" and "analysis" before they can grasp the sentence as a whole.
Music is quite different to spoken language, but most listeners will still group the different sounds they hear into motifs, phrases and even longer sections.
Here are eight notes (or tones):
Different listeners will make sense of such a series of notes in different ways, depending on their cultural background. If you have been brought up in the tradition of western art music, however, you will hear the above sequence of notes in a very particular way - as a scale of C major. This means hearing the tonic (C) or perhaps the notes of the tonic chord (C, E and G) as somehow more important than the rest.
This implies that we hear the other notes of the scale as forming a relationship with the more important notes (compare the way the definite article "the" belongs with the more important subject "student" in the sentence above). An example might be the fact that B is considered to 'lead' up to to C.
This sort of relationship is quite straightforward, but we often talk about whole symphonies being "in C major". What exactly do we mean by this? What makes a tonal piece hang together? These are the sort of questions that a Schenkerian analysis seeks to answer.
Schenkerian analysis goes beyond abstract explanation, it can form an integral part of one's interpretation of a musical work, whether as performer, writer or teacher. The work of Alexandra Pierce is an excellent example of a contemporary scholar who has integrated a Schenkerian understanding of music into her method of teaching pianists and other musicians (see Pierce, Alexandra, 'Developing Schenkerian Hearing and Performing' in Integral Vol. 8 (1994), pp. 51-123.).
Schenker discussed a wide range of theoretical, philosophical and political justifications for his theory - he would have probably been horrified to see his theory justified in these comparatively meagre terms. Links to Schenker's own justifications and a critique of them can be found by following the link below.
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