I was doing some practice problems in the AP Barron's Music Theory book, and one of the practice problems asks: “When harmonies within a phrase move from a strong intensity to a less strong intensity [...] it is called:”, and the answer is retrogression.

I'm confused by this definition, as V-I would certainly not be a harmonic retrogression, yet the intensity is decreasing. On the other hand, something like IV-V⁷ would be increasing in intensity, and indeed, typically V⁷ or vii° is the last chord before returning to the tonic.

My question then is: how accurate is the book's definition? Has this sort of definition been corroborated by other music theory texts?

  • 2
    I'd be curious to hear what they say in the [...] portion of your quote!
    – Richard
    Feb 23 at 19:39
  • Not enough for an answer: I've not seen such an "intensity" definition of retrogression, and I think your reasoning re. V I makes perfect sense. But, as Richard said, the full definition might tell more. Feb 23 at 20:06
  • The part was cut off, but some of it is actually still readable. It said “e.g. a root position V to a root position [...]”.
    – awe lotta
    Feb 23 at 20:22

Interesting. I think the problem lies in a pretty poor definition.

As you've said, there are all kinds of ways to understand "intensity," so it's not hard to come up with examples that seem to defy the definition.

It seems that they mean "intensity" as something like "tendency to resolve towards tonic," but presumably the tonic chord isn't included in this set.

Thus V to IV is a retrogression because IV has a weaker tendency to resolve towards tonic (often explained by its lack of a leading tone) than V does.

Of course, the problem with this understanding of the quote is that it's somewhat circular. To understand what a good progression is, you need to understand chordal tendencies to resolve towards tonic. And to understand chordal tendencies to resolve towards tonic, you need to understand what a good progression is.

It also confuses something like IV moving to vi. This, to me, is something of a retrogression, but I can't define "intensity" in any way to suggest that one should come before the other.

A better approach, in my opinion, is that found in several recent textbooks: that of a "phrase model" or harmonic paradigm of distinct zones (tonic, predominant, dominant), and how those zones function with respect to each other (like dominant not typically moving backwards to predominant, etc.).

  • Yeah, that makes sense. I suppose it's not a big deal since I know in practice where each chord should and shouldn't go, and so I don't need a more nebulous definition. I think it might not be totally circular though, as 4-part counterpoint arose out of 2-part counterpoint (I think?) -- that is to say, you could relate everything to voice leading. Though this relationship is probably messy and psychologically, I'd guess we have some weird mix of purely chordal thinking and purely melodic thinking.
    – awe lotta
    Feb 23 at 20:25

I second @Richard's comment that it's a poor definition. Here is some evidence from other textbooks than AP Barron's.

In Steven G. Laitz's The Complete Musician (which uses the "phrase model" mentioned by @Richard), retrogression is defined as follows:

a backward motion [such as] from D to PD [dominant to predominant] is called a retrogression.1

This is used to introduce the concept of back-relating dominants, in which a dominant chord serves to expand the preceding tonic harmony but does not itself resolve to the tonic. The example given is from Bach's Prelude in Eb Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2 (BWV 876), excerpted here:

X: 1
T: Prelude in Eb Major, BWV 876
T: from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II
C: Bach
M: 9/8
K: Eb
L: 1/8
%%score (V1 V2) | V3
[V:V1 stem=up] B3 z3 z Ge | {e}d3 z3 z FG | ACE
[V:V2 stem=down] G3 z3 z G2 | F3 z3 y3 | y3
[V:V3 clef=bass] z ED EB,G, E, zz | z B,=A,  B,F,D, B,, zz | F,zz
w: I | V7 | ii7
w: Tonic | BRD | PD

Aldwell and Schachter, in Harmony and Voice Leading, devotes a brief section to back-relating dominants, but nowhere uses the term "retrogression."2 The Oxford Companion to Music and The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music also do not have entries for "retrogression."

1 Steven G. Laitz, The Complete Musician, 2nd ed. (2008, Oxford University Press), pages 452-53.

2 Edward Aldwell and Carl Schachter, Harmony and Voice Leading, 2nd ed. (1989, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), pages 146-47.

  • 1
    It's interesting that those sources don't include the idea of "retrogression." I wonder if it's a relatively new addition to the discourse, perhaps something that appeared along with the interest in analyzing popular music (which uses these types of "retrogressions" all the time)?
    – Richard
    Feb 23 at 20:42
  • @Richard FWIW, I did a quick search in Google Scholar and found the term used, with an example, in Betty Jean Thomas's 1963 dissertation "Harmonic materials and treatment of dissonance in the pianoforte music of Frederic Chopin". See chapter 6, page 194.
    – Aaron
    Feb 24 at 5:10
  • @Richard Also, Google's Ngram Viewer places the first English use (since 1800) of "musical retrogression" in 1860. Based on their chart, it saw its most frequent use around 1915/1925, flourished somewhat in the 1950s and 60s, and has remained in use but tapered off since then.
    – Aaron
    Feb 24 at 5:18
  • @Richard Again with Ngram Viewer, "Back-relating dominant" was unused (in English) between 1800 and 1963, but has generally increased in usage since then.
    – Aaron
    Feb 24 at 5:19
  • @Richard Got it. Sort of. The idea of the back-relating dominant goes back to the Schenkerian idea of the "divider at the fifth". This much I'm confident in. It's not clear to me, however, whether BRD is just the English term adopted for the concept, or whether it's a refinement on the original concept. In either case, my best guess is that the term originates with Aldwell and Schachter, but I can't confirm.
    – Aaron
    Feb 24 at 6:25

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