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The Concept of Tonality in Fétis’s Traité
Judy Lochhead
Master of Arts in Music Theory, Degree paper supervised by David Lewin. MA degree
Stony Brook University (Re-typed in 2012 by Jacek Blaszkiewicz)
Fétis’s Traité1 is an exposition of the “science of harmony” based on the unifying
“principle of tonality” which Fétis claims to have discovered. However, he was not the first to
use the term. According to Bryan Sims, “tonality” is found in “French lexicons such as that of
Castil-Blaze (Dictionnaire de musique moderne, 1821), and in other languages as cognates such
as ‘tonalität,’ ‘tonalità,’ and ‘tonality’ somewhat later in the century.”2 Both Fétis and his
contemporary, Choron, employ the term in their writings of the 1810’s and 20’s. Fétis claims to
have formulated his ideas of tonality during a period of residence in the Ardenne countryside
between 1811 and 1813. Here he spent many pastoral days in solitude considering his theory of
harmony. In 1816 he finished the first draft of what he called the Traité, but because he
considered his ideas confused, it was not published. In 1824 Fétis published a “summary” of his
theories in the Traité élémentaire,3 but it was not until 1831, while walking through the Bois de
Boulogne, that he experienced a revelation that dissipated his confusions. After this romantic
moment of enlightenment, Fétis publicly presented his theory in 1832 before the professional
music community of Paris. Due to his work on the Biographie,4 the first edition of the Traité did
not appear until 1844. Considering the varied answers to the rhetorical question “But what is
tonality?” appearing so often in his treatises, one might conclude that it was somewhat foggy on
that 1831 day in the park. The confusion about precisely what “tonality” means in the Traité,
and for that matter, in Fétis’s mind, arises from the fact that what he originally conceived of as
François-Joseph Fétis, Traité complet de la théorie et de la pratique de l’harmonie, contenant ;a doctrine de la
science et de l’art (Paris: Brandus, 1849) Quatrième edition. Any further references to Traité will signify this book.
Bryan Simms, “Choron, Fétis, and the Theory of Tonality,” Journal of Music Theory, 19.1 (Spring 1975), p. 119.
Fétis, Traité élèmentaire de la musique (Brussels, 1824).
Fétis, Biographie Universelle des Musiciens et Biographie Generale de la Musique (Paris: Firmin Didot et Cie,
1835-44), 8 vols.
“tonality” underwent a transformation. In this paper, I want to demonstrate that Fétis did use
“tonality” in several senses because he was in the process of expanding its meaning to something
similar to modern notions of “tonality.” In this light, Fétis should be regarded, not as the first to
invoke the word “tonality,” but, more significantly, as the first to develop its modern
connotations. In fact, Fétis does not claim to be the discoverer of “tonality,” but rather the
“principle of tonality” as a unifying device.5
To disperse some of the confusion regarding “tonality” in the Traité, I find it useful
to isolate four aspects of the different senses employed.
In trying to understand what Fétis means in any particular statement about “tonality,” one
should determine whether it expresses something about one or any “cross-page” combination of
these aspects, e.g., a broad-metaphysical sense (BM), specific-formal (SF), etc. Fétis employs
various possible senses in the Traité, but not always clearly, especially when the B sense is
involved. A full comprehension of this B sense, which is necessary to understand the others,
requires reference to the Histoire générale6 which evidences later developments of this sense.
Here Fétis employs on the BF sense in the context of the musics of other cultures. Discussion of
The majority of the historical background in the preceeding paragraph is taken from the Preface to the Traité.
Fétis, Histoire générale de la musique depuis les temps les plus ancien jusqu’a nos jours (Paris: Firmin Didot
Frères, 1869-76), 5 vols.
four senses of “tonality” will be presented as follows: BM BF SF SM. Throughout these
discussions the relation between the B and S senses will become evident.
In the conclusion of the Traité, Fétis states that music “can rest on no other
principle…than the metaphysical..”7 He further elaborates:
Nature only furnishes, for the elements of music, a multitude of sounds which
differ in pitch, duration and intensity by larger or smaller amounts. Among these
sounds, those which are differing enough to effect the ear in a determinate
manner, become the object of our attention; the idea of relations which exist
between them arises in the intellect; and under the action of the senses, on one
hand, and the will, on the other, the mind orders them in different series, each of
which corresponds to a characteristic order of emotions, perceptions, and ideas.8
The philosophical attitudes expressed here suggest a relation to German idealism.9 The
embodiment of nature as an endower and the intellectual-spiritual structuring of raw musical
material which can be represented as a metaphysical principle, are reminiscent of Kant’s
philosophy regarding the conceptualization process and how we gain knowledge.
Space and time are pure forms of our intuition (Anschauung), while sensation
forms its matter. What we can know a priori-before all real intuition, are the
Traité, p. 251.
Ibid., Preface
In Fétis’s account of his own life in the Biographie, he mentions the crucial period of the Traité’s formulation in
the years before 1816 as a time when he studied philosophy. He considered this study “indispensable” for a theory
of harmony. (vol. III, p. 229).
forms of space and time, which are therefore called pure intuition, while sensation
is that which causes our knowledge to be called a posteriori knowledge, i.e.,
empirical intuition…
This faculty (receptivity) of receiving representations (Vorstellungen), according
to the manner in which we are affected by objects, is called sensibility
(Sinnlichkeit). Objects therefore are given to us through our sensibility.
Sensibility alone supplies us with intuitions (Anschauungen). These intuitions
become though through the understanding (Verstand), and hence arise
conceptions (Begriffe). All thought therefore must, directly or indirectly, go back
to intuitions, i.e., to our sensibility; because in no other way can objects be given
to us.10
Hegel picks up on Kant’s notions of Anschauungen while asserting that there are
different Anschauungen throughout the world each of which reflects the cultural environment
and “time” from which it emanates. That is to say there are characteristic Anschauungen which
are the expression of a race and/or of a specific time. Fétis integrates this Hegelian Anschauung
into his explanation of the various musics of the world, i.e., they result from the differing
spiritual essences of the people comprising a culture or race. Fétis elaborates this notion with the
position that not only is music a result of our “conformation,” but also of our “education.”11 He
cites the case of the composer Neukomm who learned to appreciate Arabic music after exposure
to it while living in Algiers.12 In light of these ideas, one can understand Fétis’s discussion of
Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. F Max Müller (Garden City, New York: Double Day & Co., 1966), pp. 21
and 36.
Traité, p. 249.
Histoire, Vol. II, p. 27.
music as a phenomenon born of a complex relation of cultural learning and the metaphysical
nature of the mind and will that manifests itself through the action of the intellect and senses.
The metaphysical principle guiding musical expression is both “objective and subjective,
a necessary result of the senses which perceive the relations or sounds and of the intellect which
measures their relations and deduces their consequences.”13 Like the Hegelian “World Spirit,”
the subjective, spiritual aspect manifests itself in objective musical structures. The subtitle of the
Traité – “The Object of Harmony as Art and Science” – sheds light on this notion. The artistic
side encompasses beauty and is the ultimately unknowable, or the “purely intuitive” (Kant), basis
of music. The scientific side lies in the empirical14 observation of musical “objects.” The
objective discovery of these phenomena discloses a musical order indicative of the Hegelian
Volkgeist. This is clearly Fétis’s allusion in the following: “the science of harmony” is the
discovery and exposition of the “laws of relationships which determine the character of a
tonality.”15 Therefore, musical research plays a similar role to the Hegelian historical endeavor
and enters into the realm of philosophy. It is no coincidence when Fétis states that “The
philosophy of music is the science of the art. It, in itself, is true as the art, in itself, is beauty.”16
In this connection, we can understand Fétis’s consideration of the acoustical and mathematical
music theories as a “rude attack on our philosophic liberty.”17 Fétis counters the authority of
prior, ideal acoustical phenomena in these theories with the “mysterious, secret law” which he
has discovered as the “principle of tonality.”
Traité, p. 250.
I use the term “empirical” here in Kant’s sense of “empirical intuition” in which we gain knowledge from our
perception of objects. In the Traité and elsewhere, Fétis objects to the “empirical” methods of such theorists as
Catel. This “empirical” has to do with the measuring and cataloging of natural phenomena as objective données.
Traité, p. 251.
Histoire, Vol. I, p. 183..
Traité, p. 250.
We have seen above that the underlying metaphysical aspect results in different musics,
each having an indigenous character. Given the possibility of discovering these characters
empirically, it seems reasonable to suppose that Fétis would have discussed this feature of the
various musics he cites in the Histoire. However, he treats these musics only formally.
Similarly, in Book III of the Traité, Fétis deals with the character of music from the early
Medieval through early Baroque periods basically as only primitive and less developed (The
reason for these denigrations will be discussed in SM). I think Fétis is trapped by his own
method. Empirical determinations of the “truth” of ten run the risk of being descriptive and
circular, i.e., Western Music from Monteverdi’s through Fetis’s time. Although Fétis expounds
objective musical research, he alludes to a subjective nature of concepts when he speaks of the
“order of melodic and harmonic a consequence of our conformation and
education.”18 From this we might conclude that an appreciation of another culture’s music will
be minimal, at least without sufficient education, as in the case of the composer Neukomm. Fétis
confirms this inability when he states, “The history of music is inseparable from the appreciation
of the special faculties of the race which cultivated it. This art, being essentially ideal, only has
existence for the men that create it.”19 On this basis, Fétis might have defended his incomplete
treatment of the characters of musics other than that of his own culture.
The metaphysical basis of music manifests itself in certain types of linear pitch orderings.
Fétis describes the three-fold process of this structuring:
Traité, p. 249.
Histoire, vol. I, p. 1.
The ear perceives the sounds; the senses find, a priori, the formulas of their
associations; and the spirit compares and measures their [formulas] relations and
determines the melodic and harmonic conditions of a tonality.20
As a result of the second step in this process, some sort of linear pitch order is the fundamental
musical construct from which a tonality is generated. Fétis refers specifically in the Traité to this
structure as a scale, and in the Histoire, one finds that he deals with the scale structures of other
musics. There appears to be an implicit concept of “octave species” both in the Traité and the
Histoire, but in the latter, there are a few instances where Fétis cites scales that do not
comprehend an octave, such as the Chinese pentatonic scale.21 Fétis would apparently deny any
natural priority of the octave as a limit and, indeed, he never explicitly mentions the octave as a
pitch boundary in the process of sound structuring. Rather, an inherited assumption of the limits
of a scale seems to be operating in Fétis’s thoughts. At any rate, he generally cites a linear pitch
ordering encompassing an octave as characteristic of a particular music and considers the formal
structure of any scale a reflection of the nature of the race or peoples who imposed that order on
a continuum of sound. The third step in the process cited above leads to the phenomenon of “a
tonality,” deriving its formal characteristics from the structure of that scale. One effect of this
three-folk process is the layering of musical structures. I call the different layers Generative
Orders (GO) because of the dependence of one order (layer) on another more fundamental one.
The following diagram should clarify this:
[Diagram to be added shortly]
Traité, 251.
Oddly enough, Fétis cites the following “major scale of the Chinese in the Conclusion of the Traité.
Implicit in this diagram, and in Fétis’s concept, is the organic nature of music. The dependent
formal relationships of the GO’s reflect this assumption of musical unity. (Further discussion of
the “principle of tonality” as a unifying device later.)
The asserted structuring of sounds into various scales that correspond to the various races
of the world concomitantly leads to an assortment of tonalities. Due to its structure, each scale
(or mode22) has a “unique” tonality. Fétis takes the idea a step further: “..Tonality resides in the
melodic and harmonic affinities of the tones of the scale …Change the order of the notes, invert
their distances and the majority of the harmonic relations are destroyed.”23 In this connection,
Fétis cites numerous historical and ethnic tonalities in the Histoire.
With the scale established as a metaphysical manifestation and as the fundament of
music, one can understand how Fétis and Choron came to use the specific word “tonality” in the
early part of the century. Choron uses it thus: “I shall limit myself to say that it was in the course
of the sixteenth century that this modern tonality made itself more strongly felt, that it exerted its
influence on composition, and that it was established in all its relationships, at least those
concerning practice.”24 Fétis cites the structure of the major and minor scales as
characterizing”..the modern tonality in a most special manner..[and as imparting] …a different
character..[to the modern tonality]..from that of the former tonalities.”25 “Tonality” here
suggests some type of linear pitch ordering with no distinction between scale and mode.
Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance theorists has in fact used the term “tons” to refer to what we
now call “modes.” Cleonides, an ancient Greek theorist writes, “The word tone [ton] is used in
four senses: as note, interval, region of the voice, and pitch…We use it as region or the voice
whenever we speak of Dorian, Phrygian, or Lydian, or any of the other tones.” In Medieval
times, Odo of Cluny equates mode and ton, and in 1525, Pietro Aron still employs “ton” where
As Fétis uses them, echelle and gamme are both scales. Mode is used as in English: in reference to the Church
modes and the major and minor modes. He does not make the distinction between tonality and modality we would
make today. And, interestingly enough, he refers to only one modern tonality, involving both major and minor
scales, in spite of having mentioned the “former tonalities.”
Traité, p. 248.
Alexandre-Étienne Choron, “Sommaire de l’histoire de la musique,” quoted by Simms, JMT, p. 119.
Traité, p. 18.
most of his contemporaries use mode.26 This sense of “ton,” involving some sort of linear pitch
ordering, forms the root of the word “tonality for Choron and Fétis.
In the 19th century, “tonality” denotes not only the form of a “ton,” but also a more
complex phenomenon; the character of the harmony and melody generated by a scale (or ton).
This relation, between the affective and formal consequences of a linear pitch order, also finds its
roots in previous concepts of music. Plato writes about the “dirge-like harmonies..[of]..the
Mixolydian and the intense Lydian” and the “soft and convivial harmonies..[of]..certain Ionian
and also Lydian [modes].”27 Much later, Zarlino writes of modal characters: “Thus it will be
inappropriate if in a joyful matter he [the musician] uses a mournful harmony and a grace
rhythm, nor where funeral and tearful matter are treated is he permitted to use a joyful
harmony…He who has studied what I have written in Part III [concerning composition] and has
considered the nature of the mode in which he wishes to write his composition will, I think,
know precisely how to do this.”28 In this regard, we might re-examine Choron’s statement from
his “Sommaire,” especially the part where he writes “ [modern tonality] was established in all
its relationships…” “Relationships” implies a more complex sense of “tonality” than merely a
scale; it includes the formal aspects of harmony and melody, and the character associated with a
certain scale structure. In this sense, the scale acts as a hinge between the metaphysical and
formal. Not only does it project the nature of the people into a character of its “unique tonality,”
but it also generates that tonality’s formal aspects.
Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1950) Cleonides, p. 44, Odo of Cluny, p.
113, and Pietro Aron, pp. 205-18.
Strunk, pp. 4-5.
Ibid., p. 113.
That which I call tonality is the order of the melodic and harmonic events which
result from the disposition of the notes of our major and minor scales…The
immediate consequences of this tonality are to give to certain notes a feeling or
repose which exists not at all in others, and with the latter, to call the termination
of the cadence, i.e., the perfect chord.29
The secret of tonality is revealed by the relation of the fourth scale degree
with the dominant, and by the attractive relation (rapport attractif), of the fourth
degree with the leading tone (note sensible).30
These statements express the SF sense of “tonality.” Here Fétis uses the term in connection with
a particular style of music whose fundamental structure is both the major and minor scales taken
as a single construct. The “tonally determining” factors here are the intervals of the triton and
minor seventh explicitly cited in the context of a V7 harmony.
In the Traité, Fétis gives a detailed account of this SF sense. I shall discuss this account
while treating the formal aspect of the SF sense’s Generative Orders. A SF diagram of the
“tree” is slightly modified:31
Traité, p. 249.
Ibid., p. 38
Just how harmonic succession is the fruit will be discussed in SM.
In this connection it should be mentioned that my, as well as Fétis’s, discussion of the SF sense
is premised on the BF sense.
Fétis alludes to the GO’s in the Traité’s sequence of presentations: 1) scale, 2) intervalschords, and 3) harmonic succession. I shall use this sequence as a point of departure for my
The GO of the scale is discussed in the Introduction33: “The scale is the rule of the order
of the succession of sounds..Each note of a scale, having a particular character and fulfilling a
It must be noted that in the Traité Fétis does not systematically adhere to the scale as the ultimate generator. He
describes intervals with the absolute qualities of consonance and dissonance. And although he introduces the
appellative consonance and discusses the absolute qualities as they relate to the “tonal unity” in Book I, chap. 2,
there is no mention here of intervals in relation to the scale. However, in Book I, chap. 4, he does associate these
qualities to a particular scale degree. Regarding chords, Fétis discusses their absolute quality and their relation to
scale degrees separately, but in the same section, Book II, chap. 1. The fact that he mentions absolute qualities can
be attributed to two factors: first, the theoretical tradition in which intervals and chords were considered free of
context, and second, the fact of the time and conceptual gap between the first draft of the Traité in 1816 and its first
publication in 1844. It is possible that the discussions of absolute qualities come from the first draft and were not
properly edited out after the 1831 revelation. It seems as if Fétis were piled new ideas onto old with no
consideration of their congruence.
It also seems that the scale could generate melody, but apparently as a treatise of harmony, Fétis does not
consider this in the Traité. This theoretical separation of the various musical aspects brings up the fact that Fétis
fails to consider rhythm and meter as a means of affecting a sense of tonality.
special function in music, is accompanied by a harmony analogous to this character and
function.”34 Later in Book 1, chp. 4, in an exposition of the intervals that can be placed over
each degree of the major scale according to “tonal law,” Fétis describes the formal characteristics
of each note. The tonic or first degree35 possesses the “absolute quality of repose while the
fourth and fifth degrees may express this character momentarily. The sixth degree may
sometimes be reposeful, as when the relative minor triad is formed over it, but generally it lacks
this character, as does the second degree. “The third degree is absolutely opposed to any
sentiment of repose,” but the seventh degree, although “not less lacking this sentiment, retains its
tonal character because it may form the augmented fourth with the fourth [scale] degree or a
chord of the sixth.” This hedging about the seventh degree is symptomatic of Fétis’s reluctance
to accept a theory of roots, such as that of Rameau. And as in this case, such a failure is evident
in the inconsistent function attributed to certain scale degrees in different GO’s. Regarding 7,
Fétis consciously emphasizes the importance of the triton and dominant chord in inversion for
effecting a sense of “tonality.” Yet he points out the similar lack of repose for 3 and 7 which
results in a qualification for 7. This problem is also born of Fétis’s equation of tonality and
repose at the GO of the scale. He implies that “tonality” involves more than just repose in his
discussion of 7, but a full treatment of “tonality” effected by elements of contrast is not explicitly
until the GO of intervals-chords. In the scale, the most perfect sense of “tonality” involves the
use of the three reposeful notes, 1, 4, and 5. The others are explained as lacking this determinate
social function.
The Introduction does not deal exclusively with the scale, but points 7-9 provide the foundation for a discussion of
Traité, pp. 2-3.
Fétis attaches no special significance to the term “tonic” in the Traité; he uses it interchangeably with the “first
In Book 1, chp. 2, Fétis considers the GO of intervals: first, independent of the scale, and
second, as the first link of chords.36 Of the first, he states, “Consonant intervals please the
ear..[and].. satisfy the spirit with the perfect relation of tonality.”37 The perfect consonances,
unison, firth and octave, possess the quality of repose while the imperfect, third and sixth, lack it
although still consonant. The fourth, neither perfect nor imperfect, is a “mixed” consonance, a
designation arising from Fétis’s inability to determine a consistent melodic and harmonic
function for it because he does not accept a theory of roots. The augmented fourth and
diminished fifth receive the name appellative consonance because of their “eminently tonal
character,” i.e., they call for the intervals or pitches of repose. Dissonances, while “conforming
to the tonal unity,” do not “please the ear in themselves and only satisfy the musical sense by
their connection with the consonances..The dissonance of two notes results from those that
touch.”38 That is to say, the quality of dissonance is experienced in the simultaneity of two
adjacent scale degrees, either “direct or indirect” (seconds or sevenths).39 The four types of
consonances and the one of dissonance all conform to the “tonal unity,” i.e., they are generated
by formal relationships of the scale.
This sort of categorizing of dissonance and consonance is indicative of Fétis’s expanding
sense of “tonality.” Include not only repose, but also the factors which are instrumental in
creating a feeling of conclusion: the appellative consonances and the special “natural
dissonance” (more on this dissonance later). Fétis alludes to this expanding sense: “Music has for
its base the character of repose in certain intervals, the absence of this character in certain others
Although I consider intervals and chords part of the same GO, Fétis discusses them separately. However, both are
harmonic structures generated by the scale; and intervals relate to chords as the latter’s constituent elements.
Traité, p. 7.
Traité, p. 9.
Ibid., p. 14.
and finally, the appellative affinities of a few…This triple character bounds the conditions which
determine the tonality.”40
The second consideration of intervals as the link of chords takes place in Book 1, chp. 4.
Given a certain scale degree in the bass, it generates an interval that conforms to its character.
Thus chords consist of intervals generated by a scale degree such that the character of the scale
degree and interval correspond. This consistency among GO’s depends on the “principle of
tonality” as a unifying device which flows through the GO’s as sap runs through the apple tree.
The sap provides the tree’s nourishment, enabling it to grow and produce fruit. “Tonality” flows
through the different GO’s enabling the metaphysical basis to manifest itself in the fruit of
harmonic succession.
Fétis’s proof of the “natural dissonance” illustrates this integrative process. He first
establishes this interval as an independent tonal entity, contrasted with other dissonances which
result from the prolongation of one element of a consonant interval and which derive their tonal
sense from their relations with the consonances.41 He attributes this distinction to the
“disposition of the notes of the scale, into two sets of four notes (called tetrachords by the
Greeks), composed of two consecutive steps followed by a half-step:
[To be added]
Fétis comments on this specialness of the natural dissonance in the Traité du contre-point et de la fugue (1824?):
“…The modern tonality depends on the unprepared dissonance…” He also attributes the “invention of the modern
tonality,” in this regard, to Monteverdi.
The natural dissonance of the fourth degree and the dominant is therefore, at the point contract
between two equal parts of the scale.”42 Whether or not this explanation proves anything about
the “natural dissonance,” the reliance on scale structure is the important issue. Harmonic
structures involve linear relationships by the very nature of the “principle of tonality.”43
The GO of chords is treated, in Book II, chp. 1. Here Fétis discusses chords both
independent of and in relation to scale degrees. He establishes the existence of two primary
chords, again conforming to the “tonal unity.” Any other harmonic structure is a variation of
these chords which results from melodic ornamentation or inversion.
A chord of a third and “just” fifth, the primary chord, Fétis describes as the “perfect
consonant harmony” because it gives the “feeling of repose and conclusion.” It can occur on 1,
4, 5, and sometimes 6. The second primary chord, that of the “natural dissonance” (dominant
seventh), is as “inherent in tonality as the consonant harmony.” One again finds that “tonality”
involves two contrasting chords, one of consonance, the other of dissonance. Regarding these
chords, Fétis discusses the inversion of their constituent intervals and recognizes the relatedness
of inverted triads. However, he attributes this factor to the absolute character of intervals over a
bass note. When a chord is inverted, the acoustic bass changes; therefore, the intervals placed
over it will differ from those of the original chord. This lack of root concept excludes the
definition of a tonality by harmonic movement independent of linear bass structure. Fétis only
Traité, p. 18.
Fétis’s treatment of the phenomenon of dissonance also illustrates this relation between linear and harmonic
alludes to harmonic fifth progressions in the perfect cadence which he equates with “perfect
[To be added]
As Fétis describes it, the creation of a feeling of tonality depends on the linear resolution of
tendency to repose tones. It does not involve fifth movement of root position chords or a sense
of tonic due to the tonal symmetry of dominant and sub-dominant.
Quite the contrary. Throughout the Traité, Fétis emphasizes the elements of contrast in
the creation of a sensation of tonality. His position does not depend on symmetry or centrality.
In fact, Fétis cites two examples of symmetrical relations which are destructive to this sensation.
The first involves the succession of two perfect, reposeful harmonies built on adjacent scale
degrees (4 and 5). This occurrence “presents to the musical sense, an aspect of tonal
[To be added]
Traité, p. 38.
Traité, p. 17.
Parallel fifths could analyze why numbers 1,2,5, and 6 are unacceptable, and Fétis
himself, cites the tritone cross-relation of 3,4, 5, and 6 as somehow deficient. But he chose an
explanation that relies on the preservation of contrasts.46
The second example of symmetrical relations destroying the sensation of tonality
involves what Fétis calls “progressions,” what we give the name sequences. He claims that the
“law of uniformity in the progressions suspends, up to the moment of cadence, the effects of the
laws of tonality.”47
As we have seen, the character of harmonic structures must correspond to that of the
scale degree over which it occurs. In the final GO, harmonic successions originate in the
organization of the generating scale degrees into a bass melody line that is imbued with a
temporal organization. The bass line functions like a basso continuo. Therefore, harmonic
movement is dictated by the melodic succession of the bass in accordance with the laws
governing the congruence of the characters of harmonic structures and scale degrees. In the
movement of the bass line, according to “tonal laws,” Fétis has provided a set of voice leading
rules which, at least, govern the bass line. From this arises the question of the role of melodic
succession in the other voices of a homophonic texture: Do these voice leading rules also govern
Fétis’s suggestion for avoiding this error, while still providing for the IV-V7-I progression we now consider as
tonality defining, relies on the “point of contact” employed in the proof of the “natural dissonance.” Fétis is never
explicit about how the “point of contact” provides an explanation of the “natural dissonance” or how it effects a
“tonal relation” in the following progression:
[To be added]
This point of contact is not the same as that involved in the argument concerning the “natural dissonance.” For the
latter, it implies something about scale structure, but in the above example, it is a common tone of two chords.
Traité, p. 27.
other melodic lines, or does the scale generate harmonic succession with no regard to voice
leading in upper parts? Fétis provides no explicit answer.
Even implicit answers are inconclusive. If the principles of melodic succession operate
for all voices then there arises the significant contradiction of 3 and 4. In the GO of the scale,
Fétis states that 3 lacks any sense of repose but 4 may express it momentarily. However, at the
GO of harmonic succession, in the perfect cadence, 4 (in the V7 tendency chord) must resolve to
3 of the perfect, reposeful “I” chord. Now, if it were the case that harmonic succession dictated
by melodic bass movement has nothing to do with the voice leading of the upper parts, how does
one compositionally determine the progression of the upper parts? One possible answer lies in
the belief that correct voice leading will be automatically provided, so long as the characters of
the harmonic structures and scale degrees correspond. But given the fact that Fétis devotes
points 75-77 of Book II, chp. 1, to the various doublings and spacing of chords over a given bass
note, the choice of these factors and voice leading must lie in the composer’s hand and is not
determined by the nature of scale degrees. This problem seems to indicate a tension between
Fétis’s concept of the scale and melodic considerations of fundamental and the application of this
concept to harmony.
At the GO of harmonic succession, the tonality determining elements include the contrast
of repose-tendency and consonance-dissonance, as opposed to the equation of tonality with
repose in the GO of the scale (of course, with the above mentioned qualifications). This coupled
with the inconsistent treatment of the function of 3 and 4 mentioned above, further evidence
“tonality’s” conceptual transformation.
The exclusive metaphysical factors of the S sense of tonality to be investigated in their
relation to the harmonic system discussed in the Traité are: 1) contrast, 2) necessity, and 3)
progress. The notions induced by the HM sense are premises for this discussion; and again, the
relation between form and affect will be apparent.
We have seen above that Fétis describes the sensation of “tonality” as dependent on the
relations of consonance-dissonance and repose-tendency. In the Avertissement of the Third
edition, Fétis is more explicit about this affiliation: “harmony [tonality48] resides in the necessary
alternatives: repose, tendency or attraction, and resolution of these tendencies in a new repose.”49
I diagram this statement so:
Repose  Tendency Resolution> New Repose
Although only implicit, the dialectic influence is nonetheless evident.50 The analogy is not quite
perfect because of the three “necessary alternatives” connected in a linear time progression on
one metaphysical level, as opposed to the “logical contradiction” of two elements on one level in
an ideal time. But taken as a whole, these three “necessities” are, in a sense, aufgehoben into the
higher manifestation of tonality. This is a dynamic theory born of the inherent formal contrasts
generated by the scale.
I justify this substitution of tonality for harmony on the basis of the following: “The only thing which has not yet
been undertaken, is the search for the principle of harmony in music itself, that is to say tonality.” Traité, p. 248.
Traité, Avertissement, appearing at least in the Third and Fourth Eds.
This sense of tonality is similar to the idea that in a tonal piece which establishes a key, diverges, and returns to it,
the second sensation of tonic differs from that of the first, and similarly the notion that a local tonic differs
qualitatively from an overall sense of key in a piece.
“Necessity,” as an integral part of the dynamics of tonality, occurs in the various GO’s.
Like the Hegelian world-historical view, certain musical processes are set in motion and must
proceed according to an order, i.e., by the nature of their lawfulness. Any race, due to its
spiritual and intellectual make-up, “necessarily” structures sounds into a particular scale. The
“obligation to resolve the natural dissonance, while making it descend a degree, and to make the
leading tone climb to the tonic,”51 illustrates the linear necessity born of scale structure.
Operating on the GO of harmonic succession, necessity demands modulation. “With the natural
harmony..all harmonic tonality is established, and the faculty of modulation exists.”52 When
considered free from context, each note has an infinite potential of tonal relations. By its nature,
each note must realize its tonal capabilities by effecting a modulation. This concept is analogous
to the workings of Hegel’s Geist:
If we consider Spirit in this aspect (consuming its envelope) – regarding
its changes not merely as rejuvenescent transitions, i.e., returns to the
same form, but rather as manipulations of itself, by which it multiplies the
material for future endeavors – we see it asserting itself in a variety of
modes and directions.53
Similarly, each note “asserts itself” in effecting a modulation while realizing its various
Due to the unfolding of tonal potentials, Fétis describes a contextual analysis of musical
events in the Traité. If the necessary resolutions of the fourth degree and leading tone do not
Traité, p. 38.
Ibid., p. 251
Hegel, The Philosophy of History, in Theories of History, ed. Patrick Gardiner (New York: The Free Press, 1959)
p. 71.
occur, then some change of key is taking place.54 For Fétis the function of a musical event
depends on an analysis of its relations with preceding and succeeding material. His explanation
of the “attractive” dissonances illustrates this.
[To be added]
“These intervals only have the character of dissonance when their notes have tendencies to
different tonalities [keys] which is proved by a sort of anxiety of the musical sense up until the
resolution. To the ear, the notes of such an interval are synonymous with other notes, which,
combined similarly but having a tendency to the same tonality, are really consonances.”55
Therefore, the determination of a note’s (and by extension, and musical structure’s) function
involves a consideration of its resolution and context.
The process that leads to modulation and contextual considerations also exhibits Fétis’s
notion of the progress of art and tonality. In the Preface to the Histoire, Fétis presents his
philosophy of music in the cosmos. “If music is the ideal work of humanity, it can only have
been produced by peoples given the faculties of appreciation, of relations, of inspiration and of
invention; even more, it is necessary that it should be called to progress.”56 Regarding tonality
itself, Fétis devotes Book III to a discussion of the progress of Western music through four
orders (not to be confused with my GO’s): “Uni-tonic,” “Transi-tonic,” “Pluri-tonic,” and
“Omni-tonic.” The orderly nature of this progress, which can be empirically apprehended, leads
Traité, p. 38.
Traité, pp. 10-11.
Histoire, Preface, p. v.
to the “destruction of tonal unity.”57 He points out that in music of the mid-19th century “melody
has lost its purity [and] no longer has absolute existence independent of any foreign condition, in
becoming harmonic and modulating.”58 The “destruction of tonal unity” coincides with the
disintegration of the linear function of music. As we have seen, linear structure and succession
in music is the framework on which Fétis builds his concept of tonality. Which its destruction
comes that of tonality.
In the preceding discussion, it have been established that Fétis uses “tonality” in four
different senses. These four senses serve Fétis in three ways that correspond to certain
theoretical and philosophical needs. First, as an essential structure that reflects the ideal
expression of music, “tonality” provides Fétis with a positive explanation of all musics. Second,
he discusses its unifying powers as regards the formal mechanisms of both the B and S senses.
Last, as an exclusive phenomenon of the S sense, “tonality” provides a means of dealing with the
19th century issues for a widening harmonic vocabulary.
At the beginning of this paper, I mentioned the transformation of “tonality” as a concept,
and throughout, I alluded to this transformation from the B to the S sense. The end product of
this “developmental process” might be a concept that is similar to present notions of tonality.
The relation is not that simple.
Formally, “tonality” acts as a unifying device. It is a concept which glues together other
concepts of musical structure. It was this idea of “tonality” as the cement of music that Fétis
claims to have discovered in 1831.
Traité, Book III, chp. 4.
Ibid., Book III, chp. 4, point 283.
..I asked myself if the secret laws which govern the relations of the successions of
the notes of our major and minor scales are not the same as those that determine
the relations of the simultaneities in chords; in other words, I asked if the
principle of melody is not identical to that of harmony. And as such, I acquired
the conviction of this identity.59
What Fétis tells us of his thinking process that led to the discovery of the “principle of
tonality” complicates the relation of the B to the S sense. Fétis was obviously ruminating about
the music of his time when the revelation of the homogeneity of musical structures occurred to
him. He apparently formulated his ideas of tonality around the S sense and only then, seeking to
same sort if unity on a larger scale, developed that concept more broadly. This is not to deny
that the earlier B sense (for example, the sense in which Choron used it in 1810) stimulated
Fétis’s formulations of the S sense in the Traité. Rather, it indicates that there were later
developments regarding both senses which imply a more complex relation than a linear
progression from the B to the S sense. That is to say, that while Fétis entertained an S concept in
mid-century, he also had a sophisticated B sense that one finds in the Histoire.60 In this regard,
we can also see a two-way relationship between Fétis’s musicological and theoretical endeavors.
His historical studies apparently influenced his initial ideas of the B sense; on the other hand, the
development of the concept of tonality as a unifying device operating in all musics served the
musicological task of positively explaining other musical cultures.
Hopefully, this paper will “dissipate” confusions about the senses in which Fétis uses the
term “tonality.” But a hazy definition of tonality is not a problem indigenous to 19th century
Traité, Avertissement.
Arnold Schoenberg, Structural Functions of Harmony (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1969): pp. 30-32.
thought. A summary of a few modern definitions of the term evidences a continuing ambiguity
in this century. Schönberg defines tonality as follows: “The centripetal function of progressions
is exerted by stopping the centrifugal tendencies, i.e., by establishing a tonality through the
conquest of its contradictory elements.”61 “Tonality,” to Walter Piston, “is the organized
relationship to tones in music…It implies a central tone with all others supporting it, in one way
or another.”62 In discussing the tonal functions of the scale degree, he adds, “Dominant and subdominant seem to give an impression of balanced support of the tonic, like two equidistant
weights on either side of a fulcrum.”63 Charles Rosen defines tonality as “..the hierarchical
arrangement of the triads based on the natural harmonics or overtones of a note…By building
successive triads in both ascending and descending directions [around the tonic], we arrive at a
structure which is symmetrical and yet unbalanced..” 64 Schönberg expresses the idea of
harmonic motion toward and away from a center; Piston and Rosen describe a center created by
symmetrical relations. Just how this center is created is the source of disagreement in these
An investigation of the relation of these definitions to Fétis’s should give a hint of the
significance of the mere existence of a concept of “tonality.” Schönberg’s theory, like Fétis’s, is
dynamic and implies some sense of dialectic in the words of “conquest of its contradictory
elements.” Fétis does not imply the sense of a tonality’s “contradictory elements.” This
involves a centrist, tonic-oriented approach which is not present in the Traité. To Fétis “tonality”
comprises the contrasting elements of repose-tendency, and consonance-dissonance. There is no
sense of tonic as predominant. “The properties of the first note,” Fétis states, “and the
Walter Piston, Harmony (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1972) p. 23.
Charles Rosen, The Classical Style (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1972) p. 23.
specialness of its harmony, cause it to be called the tonic.”65 It does not express the center of a
“tonality;” rather, it is the repository of the quality of repose. It has an implicit importance, but
the repose-tendency contrast carries the greater weight in effecting the sensation of tonality.
Piston defines a tonic center created by tonal symmetry. Implicit in this definition are certain of
Rameau’s theories in Nouveau Système involving the symmetrical balancing of the tonic and in
the Traité de l’harmonie involving harmonic progression of root position chords. As we have
seen, Fétis does not define tonality on the basis of symmetry or harmonic motion. Rather he
invokes contrast and the necessity of linear resolutions. Rosen also describes a symmetrical and
harmonic sense of tonality, but he goes one step further in attributing the musical use of certain
structures to natural acoustical phenomena.. Of course, Fétis would label this a “rude attack on
our philosophic liberty.” Rosen does imply some sense of contrast and tension involved in the
sensation of “tonality,” but precisely how symmetry and unbalance concurrently obtain in the
sub-dominant and dominant balancing of the tonic is foggy.
So we see that confusion concerning the concept of “tonality” is not restricted to Fétis.
What seems present in all definitions is a need to conceptualize about a musical phenomenon.
This intellectual shorthand acts as a means by which we organize certain perceptions. Kant can
again be helpful here:
An intuition (Anschauung) of an object, by means of sensation is called empirical.
The undefined object of such an empirical intuition is called phenomenon
Traité, p. 15.
In a phenomenon I call that which corresponds to the sensation its matter; but that
which causes the manifold matter of the phenomenon to be perceived as arranged
in a certain order, I call its form.
The matter only of all phenomena is given us a posteriori; but their form must be
ready for them in the mind (Gemüth) a priori, and must therefore be capable of
being considered as separate from all sensations. 66
In the above definitions, there is an apparent, yet tacit, agreement about the
“phenomenon” to which tonality refers; the difference lies in the conceptual apparatus, in
the Gemüth, by which the “form” of the phenomenon is defined..So if in fact a more
specific definition of “tonality” is desirable, two things must be achieved: first, some sort
of restriction and agreement about what “phenomena” will be involved, and second
(which seems quite unreasonable), the universal use of a unique philosophical mode of
conceptualizing. But indeed, a rigid definition seems antithetical to the relation of
concept and perception and would not serve our conceptual needs so well. From this
vantage point, we can view the significance of Fétis’s endeavor; he was the first to
conceptually grapple with a phenomenon we call “tonality.”
Kant, pp. 21-22