Music Theory Nerd Fight I: Why Joseph Straus is Wrong About Post-Tonal Prolongation

Note: this article is pretty technical. If arcane issues of music theory are not your cup of tea, this may not be the article for you.

It never ceases to amaze me how good, progressive-thinking professors and scholars can be as progressive as they are in what I would call, for lack of a better term, “real life,” while being unbending stalwarts for purist orthodoxy in their own scholarly fields.

Take Joseph Straus, for instance. I don’t know for a fact that Straus is politically liberal per se, but he has done an awful lot of good for people with disabilities. He almost singlehandedly created the field of disability studies in music, and that ain’t all bad. Straus’s book Sounding Off has become the cornerstone of this important emerging field, and his efforts to this end should be applauded.

Unfortunately, though, Straus’s pronouncements in a different arena have made life very difficult for those of us who care deeply about post-tonal music. In 1987, Straus wrote a vastly influential article for the Journal of Music Theory called “The Problem of Prolongation in Post-Tonal Music.”  In this article, he says that post-tonal prolongation is only possible if post-tonal music can fulfill four conditions— four conditions that it is impossible to fulfill. He then concludes that post-tonal prolongation is not possible.

Prolongation, to put it very generally, is the glue that holds music together. We don’t hear music note-after-note-after-note. We hear music as events in a hierarchy— more important events, and less-important events. Prolongation is the technique composers use to make the less-important events function so that we retain the more-important events in our memory until the next important event comes along. The music theorist who discovered this and wrote about it extensively was Heinrich Schenker. He is the guy Schenkerian Analysis is named after.

The controversy in the music theory world that persists to this day is whether or not prolongation exists in post-tonal music (music that is not in any particular key) or whether prolongation only exists in tonal music (music that is in a key). Schenker said that prolongation only exists in tonal music, and a lot of adherents to Schenker insist that he was correct. Straus is one of them.

There are many problems with Straus’s argument, and here are some of them.

1) His reasoning is circular. I am not the first to point this out (that distinction goes to the late composer-theorist Roy Travis, who gave us some sensational post-tonal prolongational analyses of the music of Bartok, which Straus dismisses in his 1987 article without ever really saying why, other than to call these analyses “ad hoc” and without really taking a look at the actual purely musical insights those marvelous graphs give us). But I am continually amazed at how Straus’s view continues to be the “law of the land” with all the force in the music theory world of a Supreme Court decision, even though it has been pointed out time and time again that his reasoning is completely tautological. You can’t get anything into peer-reviewed ink directly challenging Straus on this— believe me, I have tried. But it has been indirectly suggested on several occasions by scholars like Olli Vaisala and the late Steve Larson that there is circular reasoning going on, and they’re right.

Straus says that any kind of music that has prolongation has to fulfill four conditions that just so happen to be four conditions that contra-indicate post-tonal music. (Those four conditions are, in case anyone is wondering: the music has to have consonance and dissonance; the music has to have scale degrees; the music has to have ornamentation; and the music has to have a distinction between harmony and melody.) So the conclusion— post-tonal music does not have the features required to create prolongation— is assumed the in the premise— music, to have prolongation, has to have features that contra-indicate post-tonal music. See how that works? Travis called Straus’s four conditions ex posteriori (that’s Latin for “pulled out of his ass”) and he was absolutely right. Exactly where and how Straus divined his four conditions, and based on what scholarly precedents, he never says.

2) Post-tonal prolongation has to exist somehow. To say that post-tonal prolongation does not exist means then that we hear post-tonal music from note to note to note and no other way. I do not accept that. To be fair, there is a kind of post-tonal music called “moment form” which deliberately attempts to do exactly this; its premise is that we hear notes as a never-ending stream flowing by, and no moment ever has any obligation to reflect the past in the piece, nor does it have any obligation to predict the future. Boulez and Stockhausen are/were exponents of this idea. The only trouble is, cognitive science says that we are going to hear patterns in music whether they are there or not. It seems, then, in my view, that the post-tonal composer may as well avail upon this fact of our cerebral hardwiring and use it to his or her advantage.

Anecdotal though the evidence may be, I have to say that it has never been my experience of post-tonal music to hear it from note to note to note. I hear it hierarchically. I hear moments that are clearly more important, and moments that are clearly less important. Furthermore, I have never known a post-tonal composer— and I know a lot of post-tonal composers— who thinks that he or she is simply stringing together notes, one after another, without thinking about a bigger picture. I’ve watched post-tonal composers sketch. They think about long arcs. They think about getting from Point A to Point B, with Point B perhaps being five or ten minutes later. To suggest that post-tonal prolongation does not exist is to suggest that post-tonal composers are deluded in terms of what they think they are doing.

I am certain there are anti-post-tonalists who are giddy and eager to say, “Yes! Yes! Post-tonal composers are deluded, because post-tonal music is completely invalid!” But Joseph Straus cares deeply about post-tonal music. He wrote one of the most widely used textbooks about post-tonal music. That is why I think his argument is so counter-productive: he is just playing into the hands of those who would say that post-tonal music is inferior to tonal music, if not completely invalid altogether.

Straus proposes that an “associational” model gets us from Point A to Point B. That Point A and Point B may have something in common, and that’s what links them, but— and here is the important point— it doesn’t matter what comes in between. If that’s true, then post-tonal music becomes pastiche. As long as we invest Point A and Point B with some common factor, we can literally do anything we want in between Points A and B. Point A and Point B may be unified by their both being orchestral tutti on a 4Z-29 tetrachord; but in between Points A and Point B we have a bebop tenor sax solo for five minutes.

Unless your name is John Zorn, this is not how post-tonal music works. To say that post-tonal music is this incoherent is an insult to most post-tonal composers. But that is precisely what Straus’s associational model does. It posits that nothing matters on the way to Point B from Point A in any post-tonal work.

Post-tonal composers care a lot more deeply about their materials than this. I think that there are truly prolongational devices that get us from Point A to Point B in post-tonal music. We have yet to uncover them all. But to throw up our hands and say that because it’s a difficult and thorny question to consider, that means we should just give up and declare that post-tonal prolongation is impossible: I ask you, is that the can-do attitude that made America great, Prof. Straus?

If we don’t have prolongation, then we have pastiche at best and moment-form at worst. I don’t know any post-tonal composers, though, who would be satisfied to say that they are merely writing whatever between the signposts of large structural events in their music. And, yes, death-of-the-author notwithstanding, the viewpoints of composers really matters. Because, as I like to say, without composers, music theory would be just… well, theory.


One area of investigation I am beginning to explore are the tropes of post-tonal music. Straus says that post-tonal music may just be too “multivalent” (to use his exact term) to understand from a prolongational standpoint. Granted, post-tonal prolongation may be a lot more complex than prolongation in tonal music. (Post-tonal music, by and large, is typically more complex than tonal music, so that follows.) But that does not mean post-tonal prolongation is impossible to obtain, just difficult to obtain. I believe that there really may be tropes that are common to most, or even all, post-tonal pieces that are worth pursuing. A composer friend once joked to me, “you know, the major seventh is the octave of post-tonal music.” But I don’t think that’s a joke at all. I think there is something to it. The ic2 (interval class 2, i.e., a semitone) spaced eleven semitones apart (or in compound) really does have a quality of being a stable reference point in a lot of post-tonal music. So if this is a trope, perhaps there are other tropes. And in those tropes, maybe we find prolongational devices. What is an Ursatz but a trope of tonal music?

I am not guaranteeing this line of investigation will bear fruit. But it is worth investigating, enough so that I think it is premature to declare the non-existence of post-tonal prolongation until lines of investigation such as these have borne themselves out.


3) Post-tonal counterpoint exists.

Straus concedes in the 1987 article that if a post-tonal counterpoint could be shown to exist commensurate with a tonal counterpoint as underpinning post-tonal music, then he would concede the existence of post-tonal prolongation. Again, he is assuming in the premise his wanted conclusion— of course, it must be that there is no such thing as post-tonal counterpoint. That’s his assumption.

Not so. Post-tonal counterpoint does exist. The only difference between post-tonal counterpoint and tonal counterpoint is that post-tonal counterpoint tends to exist on an idiostructural (piece-by-piece) basis. Post-tonal pieces find their own contrapuntal rules. But that does not mean that contrapuntal rules cannot be divined.

Post-tonal pieces create their own structures for what is consonant and what is dissonant. (It is absolutely a myth that all twelve tones are completely egalitarian and hierarchies do not exist; that myth is unfortunately promulgated by freshman-year textbooks that include chapters about Arnold Schoenberg’s so-called “liberation of the dissonance”.) But these structures can be divined. It takes analysis.

Here is a sneak preview of a chapter I have written that I am contributing to a book Timothy L. Jackson and I are writing on post-tonal prolongation. It is a rough draft, but it shows a post-tonal contrapuntal analysis of pieces by Samuel Adler, Carl Ruggles, Shulamit Ran among others.

Contrapuntal Principles of Post-Tonal Prolongation 5-14-14

Straus is careless in that he never says that post-tonal counterpoint has to entail universal rules in order for us to obtain post-tonal counterpoint. But this is no mere loophole I am exploiting; I think this is precisely how post-tonal counterpoint works. If each piece creates its own consonance and dissonance conditions (along with the other three conditions), then each piece creates its own unique universe in which idiostructural post-tonal prolongation obtains. To me, that is an incredibly exciting possibility. To Straus, it is a reason to throw up hands and say, oh well, can’t be done. I like my way— the way that is actually rife with possibility rather than defeatism— a little better.

4) Separate but equal is inherently unequal. The associational model is the domestic partnership of music theory. It is the segregated school of music theory. Straus asserts that post-tonal music has a separate model governing its large-scale architectonics, and it’s the associational model.

The only trouble is, the associational model is an inferior model. It is capable of creating only one level of hierarchy deeper than the foreground, and that’s the background of associations themselves, and nothing else. By contrast, tonal prolongation (and remember, as an adherent of orthodox Schenkerian analysis, Straus signs on to this premise) creates rich nests of foreground, many middlegrounds, and a background. The associational model is too weak to do this.

As long as we consign to post-tonal music an inferior model, we are saying that post-tonal music is itself inferior. Straus would like us to believe that the associational model is a separate, but equal, model in which to find hierarchy in post-tonal music. But it simply is not. One layer of associations does not suffice to explain the intricate and complex dynamics of post-tonal music.

Therein lies Straus’s ultimate failure. His model assumes that post-tonal music is simpler than tonal music, and therefore a simpler model can suffice. No, no, no. Post-tonal music is vastly more complex than tonal music. Straus told me in a private e-mail that Olli Vaisala’s complex schema for finding post-tonal prolongation in intervallic-registral analysis was correct, but would probably not find widespread use because it is so complex.

That does not make it wrong, Prof. Straus! Okay, so you’re going to find fewer post-tonal analysts than tonal analysts using fewer post-tonal prolongational schemas for analysis. So what else is new? More people listen to tonal music than post-tonal music anyway. More people analyze tonal music than post-tonal music. More people teach and perform tonal music than post-tonal music. To hold up the correctness of an analytical approach to a popularity contest is absurd. Post-tonal music will always be a tiny niche province. What Straus does not want to admit is that Vaisala found a way to locate post-tonal prolongation that fulfills Straus’s four conditions, thus proving that Straus is wrong. “Widespread use” is now one of the conditions for post-tonal prolongation? That’s not what he said in 1987. Not once did he say that a post-tonal prolongational schema had to achieve widespread use in order to be correct. Straus is moving the goalposts here.

In conclusion, the time has come for Straus’s edict to fall by the wayside, and for exciting, freewheeling, progressive investigations into the nature of post-tonal prolongation to see the light of day. Otherwise, we are relegating post-tonal music to the status of inferiority, and that would be a shame. I do not think this is Straus’s intent— I think he cares very much about post-tonal music— but he has to realize that his pronouncements have had lasting consequences in shaping attitudes toward post-tonal music. Separate but equal is inherently unequal. The time to recognize the equality of post-tonal music is now.

-Robert Gross

Coming soon in this series:

Music Theory Nerd-Fight II: Why Michael Buchler Is Wrong About Klumpenhouwer Networks (With Apologies, Because I Really, Really Like Michael Personally)

Music Theory Nerd-Fight III: Why Hepokoski and Darcy Are Wrong About Pretty Much Everything