Bending the Rules of Music Theory: Lessons from Great Composers, 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Bending the Rules of Music Theory

Lessons from Great Composers, 1st Edition

By Timothy Cutler


314 pages

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For students learning the principles of music theory, it can often seem as though the tradition of tonal harmony is governed by immutable rules that define which chords, tones, and intervals can be used where. Yet even within the classical canon, there are innumerable examples of composers diverging from these foundational "rules." Drawing on examples from composers including J.S. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Brahms, and more, Bending the Rules of Music Theory seeks to take readers beyond the basics of music theory and help them to understand the inherent flexibility in the system of tonal music. Chapters explore the use of different rule-breaking elements in practice and why they work, introducing students to a more nuanced understanding of music theory.

Table of Contents



Chapter 1: "Rules"

Chapter 2: Consonance and Dissonance

Classifying Consonance and Dissonance

Intervals and Musical Context

Consonant and Dissonant Perfect Fourths

Functionally Flexible Intervals

Dissonant Perfect Fifths

Dissonant Perfect Octaves

Dissonant Perfect Unisons

The Stability of Major and Minor Triads

Unstable Triads and Nonharmonic Tones

Unstable Triads and Hypermeter

Stable Diminished and Augmented Triads?

Chapter 3: Chord Construction

Chordal Doubling

Doubling Chordal Thirds

Doubling Tendency Tones

Incomplete Chords

Missing Thirds

Incomplete Inverted Chords

Missing Roots

Other Uses for Incomplete Chords

Chord Spacing

Chapter 4: Voice Leading I: Parallel Fifths

Good and Bad Parallel Fifths

Parallel Fifths and Nonharmonic Tones

"Mozart" Fifths

Parallel Fifths at Deeper Levels of Structure

Illusory Parallel Fifths

Full-Voiced Textures

"Parallel Fifths" by Octave Transference

Enharmonic Parallel Fifths

Parallel Fifths between Phrases

Parallel Fifths and Arpeggiated Textures

Bad Parallel Fifths

Avoiding Parallel Fifths

Brahms’ Notebook

Coloristic Parallel Fifths

Chapter 5: Voice Leading II: Parallel Octaves and Other Procedures

Parallel Octaves

Fifths and Octaves by Contrary Motion

Diminished Fifth-Perfect Fifth

Ascending Chordal Sevenths

Voice Leading the Cadential 6/4

Leading Tones in the Soprano

When Two Voice-Leading Principles Collide

Chapter 6: Harmonic Syntax I: Contrapuntal Chord Function

Harmonic Function

The Limits of Harmonic Function

Stylistic Considerations

The Pitfalls of Seeking Syntactical Irregularities

Standard Harmonic Syntax Obscured by Nonharmonic Tones

Harmonic Sequences

Parallel 6/3 Chords

Contrapuntal Chord Function

Passing Chords

Neighbor Chords

The Limits of Contrapuntal Chord Successions

I as an Unstable Contrapuntal Chord

Chords that Support Contrapuntal Gestures in Upper Voices

The Dangers of Contrapuntal Chord Function

Chapter 7: Harmonic Syntax II: More Unorthodox Progressions



Predominants Progressing "Up" by Third





Multiple Explanations for Unusual-Looking Syntax


Harmonic Retracing

Voice-Leading Function

Chapter 8: Deviant Harmonies I: Forbidden and Functionally Flexible Chords

"Forbidden" Harmonies: 5/3 and 6/4 Diminished Triads

Functional Flexibility: Half Cadences with V7

Functional Flexibility: Decorative and Predominant VII7 Chords

Functional Flexibility: III and VII

Misleading Labels: III6 and VI6

Misleading Labels: Illusory Applied Chords

An Illusory V7

Chapter 9: Deviant Harmonies II: 6/4 Triads

Dissonant 6/4s

Consonant 6/4s

Arpeggiated 6/4

Oscillating 6/4

6/4s by Delayed Bass Resolution and Delayed Bass Entrance

Notable 6/4 Triads in Works by Beethoven and Chopin

Can We Invert the Cadential 6/4?

Voice Exchanges

The Inverted Cadential 6/4

Chapter 10: Aberrant Nonharmonic Tones I: Analytical Conundrums

Optical Illusions

Figuration within the Prevailing Harmony

Nonharmonic Tones and the Obfuscation of Harmony

Dual Interpretations

Ornamenting Ornaments

Floating Nonharmonic Tones

Nonharmonic Tones and Registral Displacement

Chapter 11: Aberrant Nonharmonic Tones II: Textbook Deviations

Passing Tones

Escape Tones


Implied Suspensions and Implied Resolutions

Suspensions and "Incorrect" Metric Positioning

Suspending an Entire Chord


Indirect Anticipations

Hidden Anticipations

Parallel Lines

Chapter 12: Tonal Transgressions I: Beginnings and Endings

What Defines Tonality?

Beginning on a Non-Tonic Harmony

Beginning on a Tonicized Non-Tonic Harmony

Beginning in a Non-Tonic Key Area

Beginning in an Ambiguous Key Area

Beginning with Modal Ambiguity

"Erroneous" Endings

Phrygian Half Cadences

Reverse Picardy Endings

Ending on "I6"

Ending on "VI6"

Other "Erroneous" Closing Harmonies

Ending with Modal Ambiguity

Chapter 13: Tonal Transgressions II: Plurality and Implication

Key-Shifting Compositions

Key-Shifting and Text

Implied Tonics

Chapter 14: Oddities and Ends

Too Much Dissonance?

Unusual Chromatic Dyads

The "All-Chromatic" 3-1 Trichord in Tonal Music

The "All-Chromatic" 4-1 Tetrachord in Tonal Music

The "All-Chromatic" 5-1 Pentachord (and Beyond) in Tonal Music

About the Author

Timothy Cutler is Instructor and Chair of Music Theory at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
MUSIC / General
MUSIC / Instruction & Study / Theory