II. Counterpoint and Galant Schemas
Kris Shaffer and Mark Gotham
- Schemas are basic musical patterns that composers and improvisers of the eighteenth century would learn and use as a simple basis for creating new music.
- There are many types of patterns and they are typically associated with a particular place or function within the music, for instance as a way of beginning.
are “stock musical phrases” (Gjerdingen 2007, p. 6) that act as melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic/metric skeletons for creating new music in the Galant style. We can apply the term schema in three specific ways. First, a schema is a prototype—an idealized version of a common pattern. Second, a schema can be an exemplar—a single pattern that resembles the prototype. Third, a schema can be a theory—an explanation of a commonly occurring musical event. All of these ideas go into how we understand schemas. We understand an individual pattern (exemplar) as a version of an ideal general pattern (prototype), and that relationship helps us understand how that pattern is functioning within a particular passage of music (theory).
Schemas are often give names, sometimes based on descriptions from earlier theorists (the “Monte”, “Fonte”, and “Ponte” were described by Joseph Riepel, for example) or at other times, named after theorists themselves (the “Meyer” is named after Leonard Meyer).
Schemas are defined both by what happens in the schema and by where it typically appears in a piece. The “what” part involves two or more “stages” (basically, events) and includes the:
- melodic features, shown by scale degrees (1–7), usually for both the top (melodic) and bottom (bass) voices;
- harmonic features, shown with figured bass notation (e.g. 53, 63); and
- metric features, showing whether a stage occurs on a strong (“S”) or weak (“W”) beat of the bar.
The “when” part basically distinguishes between schemas that are typically used to start a piece (“opening gambits”), as a “continuation”, or as a concluding “cadence”. This section introduces one of each type and the Galant schemas – Summary chapter sets out many more examples.
The “Meyer” is an example of an opening schema. It is 4 stages long: the first and last are tonic chords, and the two in the middle are not-tonics. Here’s a summary of what the melody, harmony and meter do during this schema:
We can break this schema down into two parts, a first, opening one that moves from I to V:
… and a closing part moving back from V to I:
As the Galant schemas – Summary chapter shows, there are many other schemas with a similar pattern to the Meyer, such as “The Pastorella,” “The Jupiter,” and “The Aprile.” In each of these cases, the schema starts with a tonic chord, moves away for two stages and then returns to the tonic at the end. Like the Meyer, they prototypes for the first phrase of an opening theme. As with the Meyer, the bass and harmonic structure are less fixed than is the melody. The two central stages may articulate dominant harmony in all three schemas, and the second stage is also commonly accompanied by predominant harmony.
When each stage of a Meyer schema is given one measure of music, it is commonly found in the presentation or antecedent part of an opening theme. If those stages occur at the rate of two per measure, the Meyer may form a basic idea that would be followed by a closing gesture, such as the “Prinner” described below.
The Prinner is a typical response to an opening schema. The Prinner has four stages corresponding to four bass notes: fa – mi/me – re – do (4–3–2–1). The Prinner’s melody typically accompanies the bass in parallel tenths: la/le – sol – fa – mi/me (6–5–4–3). Harmonically, the fa and do bass notes tend to take 5/3 chords while the two middle bass notes, mi/me and re, take 6/3 chords.There is often a 7–6 suspension on the third stage:
There are a few variants on the Prinner including one that modulates to the dominant by using a version of the Prinner transposed up a fifth. In this version, the first stage of the Prinner is still a 5/3 chord and can also still be viewed as a subdominant (IV) chord, but now relative to the dominant key.
The Prinner can also be used to modulate from the tonic to the dominant.
This variant is called the ‘Modulating Prinner’:
|RNs in the tonic key:||I||V||vii/V||V|
|RNs in the dominant key:||IV||I||vii||I|
Apart from schemes for opening and closing, others are typically used for “continuation”, “cadences”, and we even have one common “post-cadential” type. The Galant schemas – Summary chapter provides examples of the main types, along with information about further variants and details. Additionally, while abstract layouts like the tables above are best for setting out what these schemas are, it’s obviously also useful to check them out in musical notation. Here is a simple realisation for exploring the schemas discussed in these chapters:
Gjerdingen, Robert O. Music in the Galant Style. Oxford University Press, 2007.
For all the musical notation files used in these schema chapters, head to:
- This site on MuseScore.com for copies of the scores playable online.
- This site on fourscoreandmore.org for direct download without login.
For much more on this topic, and especially on the historical sources, head to Gjerdingen’s own partimenti.org
Learning schemas really calls for hands-on practice.
- Playing: Begin by playing through these examples from the files provided, preferably in a range of different keys. (NB: you can transpose scores in MuseScore with the ‘Notes’ menu: Notes/Transpose).
- Memorization: See if you can memorise some of these patterns. Test yourself by:
- Writing them out on paper (start with a blank scale)
- Playing them from memory.
- Embellishment: schemas help to structure music, but they are not really musical pieces in themselves: it takes a lot of fleshing out to get from these skeletons to real music. That being the case, try improvising embellishments of these basic patterns. Start with simple turns, passing notes and the like, then move on to more ambitious changes.
- Full pieces: When you’re confident with individual cases. Try piecing them together, according to their usual position and ordering. Start by using templates like these:
These templates each provide a combination of schemas which can be thought of as prototype pieces, both to illustrate how they work, and as a template for scaffolding exercises in pastiche composition. Use these templates but bury them beneath layers of musical character and embellishment. Here are some tips for getting started:
- Rhythm: Try picking a single, characteristic rhythm to serve as the basis for your piece and use it often (but not exactly: see how many different ways you can adapt it);
- Melody: Introduce embellishments, decorating some stepwise motions with turns, for instance, and filling in some large leaps;
- Accompaniment: use one or more characteristic pattern for chordal accompaniments like the ‘Alberti Bass’;
- Texture: particularly for longer pieces, vary the number of voices present, and the way they relate.
A schema is a mental representation of a stock pattern. In music theory, the term "schema" usually refers to a prototypical chord progression or formal structure. Significantly, schemas can appear with variations while still being recognized as an instantiation of that schema. We understand an individual pattern in the music (exemplar) as a version of an ideal general pattern (prototype), and that relationship helps us understand how that pattern is functioning within a particular passage of music. Schemas are often give names, like "Meyer" or "double plagal."
Schemas can have both internal defining characteristics and normative placements within a series of musical events.
• Internal characteristics may describe a schema’s melodic features, harmonic features, and metric features.
• A schema’s normative placement describes it temporal location. For example, we will normally find a closing schema like the “Prinner” at a close of a phrase.