Proceedings abstract





Although there have been various theories of how primitive structural units in music might be said to have meaning, such theories are generally unable to deal with the composition of the meaning components they identify into complex meaning structures. These theories thus remain somewhat superficial analogies to conceptions of meaning in other domains, such as natural language.


Various formal parallels between tonal structure and linguistic syntax will be examined. It will be suggested that the functional properties of tonal harmony play a role in the domain of tonal music analogous to the semantic properties of natural language.

Main contributions:

It will be proposed that, like semantic function in natural language, the property of harmonic function in tonal music provides the criteria which must form the foundation of any theory of meaning, namely, (i) the factors that govern the covariance of structural units within a domain, and (ii) the factors that govern the causal role of primitive structural units in complex structures.

Thus, it will be argued that it is the functional properties of tonal harmony that motivate the distributional criteria relevant to establishing the syntactic categories and relations posited by tonal theory. Further, it will be demonstrated that tonal structures exhibit functional compositionality, a property that gives rise to the generativity of information structures within a particular domain.


The compositionality of tonal functions has far-reaching consequences for the type of theory required to describe pitch structure in tonal music, an observation that entails a critique of the foundations of current tonal theory.


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