Transitions of Tonality: A Model-Based Corpus Study


Tonality has been the cornerstone of Western music-theoretical discourse for centuries. This study addresses the subject, using traditional music analysis, data-driven corpus methods, and computational models, concentrating on historical changes of tonality with a particular focus on the 19th century. The thesis engages three analytical levels of increasing scope - micro, meso, and macro - and is thus located between the poles of the particular and the general. The micro-level presents a detailed analysis of Franz Liszt’s Sonetto 47 del Petrarca, S. 161, no. 4 (1858), in order to illustrate compositional innovations testifying to the radical changes in tonality within the 19th century. The analysis exemplifies how these novelties permeate musical compositions in that period, and also expose the benefits and limitations of manual music analysis. The meso-level examines a corpus of harmonic annotations of pieces by Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Dvořák, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Medtner, containing over 75,000 chord symbols. It presents a comprehensive model for the analysis of chord symbols in large corpora in order to study chords and the progressions between them. Whilst the individual composers' chord vocabularies vary considerably - paying tribute to idiomatic usages of harmony - it is shown that the overarching similarities of the chord distributions point to similarities in their harmonic language that surpass individual traits and that can be modeled by Zipf’s and Heaps’s laws. An entropy-based method is presented to systematically study the effect of certain features on chord prediction, revealing that suspensions are the strongest predictors. The study shows that chord progressions are largely asymmetrical and proceed mostly by fifths; however, third-based progressions become increasingly prevalent within the studied period. The macro-level explores a corpus of nearly 3 million notes in more than 2000 pieces created by 75 composers, comprising a historical range of approximately 600 years. The encoding of the data distinguishes enharmonically equivalent notes, hence providing a larger note vocabulary than most previous approaches in empirical music research. A Principal Component Analysis (PCA) shows that the line of fifths can be derived from the co-occurrence as well as the co-evolution of tonal pitch-classes. Moreover, the hierarchical topic model known as Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA) is used to discover latent tonal profiles. These largely correspond to distributions on contiguous line-of-fifths segments and moreover demonstrate the elevated roles of fifths as well as major and minor thirds as intervals between the most frequent notes. This motivates to model pieces as distributions on the Tonnetz. To that end, a new model, the Tonal Diffusion Model (TDM), is introduced. The results are obtained by fitting the model to the corpus and exhibit two trends. Over the entire historical period under consideration, notes are primarily distributed along the fifths axis of the Tonnetz. Furthermore, 19th-century composers also explore the major and minor thirds axes of the Tonnetz, extending their compositions in ever farther regions. The diverse methodology in this study provides quantitatively grounded insights from a range of perspectives, bridging the fields of music theory, computational musicology, mathematical modeling, and the digital humanities.

Doctoral Dissertation. École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland
Fabian C. Moss
Fabian C. Moss
Assistant Professor for Digital Music Philology and Music Theory

Fabian C. Moss is an assistant professor for Digital Music Philology and Music Theory at Julius-Maximilians University Würzburg (JMU), Germany.