Stock Musical Phrases

The music theorist Robert Gjerdingen has been pushing his theory of schemata or stock musical phrases since the 1980s, but it was only with his delightful compendium in 2007 (Music in the Galant Style) that he truly became a household name for musicologists. While analyses of eighteenth-century masters like Haydn and Mozart can get away with avoiding specialized or complex theories, schemata hit a sweet spot of simplicity and specificity that makes them difficult to ignore. I’m bringing them up for two reasons here. They will be the first proper musical topic in my attempt to link musicology with Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology. (Chapter 3, following two chapters introducing OOO ideas and methods.) I’ve also recently gotten stuck while working on the preceding chapter about how OOO pans out in methodology, and I’m hoping this post will help joggle me forward.

Schemata in galant music (such as Mozart) are basically just two-part progressions containing around four or so events and lasting for a fair chunk of a musical phrase (a few seconds). If we take Mozart’s famous “easy sonata” K. 545 as an example, the first two measures comprise what Gjerdingen would call an opening gambit. It has just three events. The top part goes from the first scale degree (the tonic or “1”) to the leading tone right below it and back again: 1-7-1. The bottom part goes 1-2-1. In the two bars right after that, Mozart presents the single most typical galant riposte to an opening gambit, which Gjerdingen calls the “Prinner.” Here, the top voice descends stepwise 6-5-4-3 and the bottom voice descends in parallel, 4-3-2-1. Then he simply repeats it in a stretched-out version (four bars) followed by a cadence on the dominant or fifth scale degree. So the opening phrase goes opening gambit, Prinner, Prinnnnnner, cadence.

Cadences have long been recognized as stock gestures, but Gjerdingen’s work is crucial for describing and labeling the vast occurrence of similar formulaic elements elsewhere in musical phrases. In the background to his project is a critique of the idealized view of the artist (or the good one anyway) as a savant who is “liberated” from practical and social imperatives, a view which often goes together with the old assumption that artistic ideas arise from a primordial access to noumena or a welling-up of subjectivity. If you associate this critique – plus the notion of conventionalized schemata – with the art historian Ernst Gombrich (Art and Illusion), then you win the prize! Gjerdingen’s earliest writings acknowledge Gombrich’s influence.

More foregrounded in Gjerdingen’s recent work (including his 2007 classic) is his critique of music theories that would, in his view, wrongly apply modern musical habits to the analysis of past music. He claims modern listeners have become “less sensitive” to the established models of galant music, and his not-so-subtle implication is that we can finally gain access to ancient ears with schemata. “[C]ognizance of the Prinner and other similar patterns need not be irretrievably lost. We can, through an archaeology of musical utterances, dust off the galant schemata and listen to what they have to tell us about this courtly mode of musical thought” (59).

My chapter on musical schema theory will serve as an initial test for the discussion of object-oriented method. There is both a negative (critical) and positive (productive) aspect to it. My critical project is to untangle the promise of schema theory from the excesses of its theorists. The promise I speak of should be clear enough. Schemata are unitary, semi-autonomous chunks of music that appear in many guises and allude to real meme-like qualities of musical communities. They are autonomous in the sense that they can be recombined and modified without destroying their underlying identities. They participate in a “richly varied musical landscape” of genres, textures, moods, and audiences. And they allude to real qualities of galant music in the sense that they refer to “a carefully taught set of musical behaviors” shared by those who participated in eighteenth-century courtly life.

In other words, schemata are a lot like objects. And Gjerdingen even suggests they appear at multiple scales of musical form. A schema lasting two bars can be embedded in one lasting four or eight bars, and figurations of a phrase schema can be well-known devices in their own right. There’s also nothing to stop us from noticing larger conventional chunks than the phrase or taking note of different schema-defining criteria in different contexts, at least ostensibly. Indeed, well-known theoretical writings by Hepokoski and Darcy (Elements of Sonata Theory) and William Caplin (The Classical Style) testify to larger-scale possibilities.

Now, I said “ostensibly” because Gjerdingen simply ignores large-scale schemata. This is no accident. The less important (but more immediate) reason is that the same focus on scale degree patterns in the top and bottom voices doesn’t seem to apply to larger chunks of galant music, except arguably at the deepest level shared by all tonal music since at least the seventeenth century. But this just means schemata have different emergent properties at different structural levels. I see no reason why we can’t consider Elements of Sonata Theory by Hepokoski and Darcy to be about section-level schemata in instrumental music of the same period.

The more important reason Gjerdingen ignores large-scale schemata is his view that the true being of music comes down to its phasing through short term memory. Gjerdingen also believes that one kind of knowledge about these short spans of music (the schema) offers privileged access to historical reality. (He sometimes implies that schema theory does not just supplement other analytical approaches, but all-out replaces them.) These two ideas are certifiably anti-object-oriented. The first one reduces the being of music to the phrase level, and the second exaggerates the role of schemata in mediating access to that being.

Another issue that seems commensurate with Gjerdingen’s implicit metaphysical viewpoint is that he tends to view schemata in terms of bundles of qualities, or “packets of knowledge.” This plays out especially clearly when Gjerdingen discusses the combination of phrase-level schemata. He just lists them out and does not treat larger units of musical form as having emergent qualities beyond the sum of their parts. He claims it would be “anachronistic” to suggest otherwise.

As for phrase-level schemata themselves, he is mostly content to define them by their content (the essential events of the schema). Nevertheless, he comes so close to a more object-oriented perspective. The key moment that I will draw upon for the more productive part of my chapter comes in the final part of his introduction, titled “Notes to the Reader.” Let me reproduce it here for you:

FORM. Some musical patterns could be described as having a clearly defined form but a loosely specified content (e.g., a “four-bar theme”). Other patterns could be described as having a loosely specified form but a clearly defined content (e.g., a “dominant pedal point”). Still others fall at some midpoint between those poles. For the midsize schemata that are the subject of much of this book, aspects of this form/content interrelationship are captured by the terms event and stageIn a simple presentation each event may constitute its own stage, as when, for example, A, B, and C are each a single chord. But in a more involved presentation, the core events may function as points of reference or as signs of punctuation. In that case, stage refers to the longer utterance into which the event is embedded.

For Gjerdingen, the distinction between event and stage is largely a matter of linguistic convenience. With the word “stage,” he can discuss a portion of music more efficiently than he otherwise might. Instead of writing, “the music around the third event lasts longer than the elaboration of the first two events,” he can write, “the third stage is lengthened.” But from an object-oriented perspective, a schema stage indicates more than just a bundle of notes that decorate an event, just as any schema taken as a whole indicates more than just a bundle of events (as Gjerdingen implies by his extensive commentary on each one). In one sense, the stage is the event: it is a bounded piece of a schema. The event itself is the recognizable aspect of the stage; it helps to seduce the schema-trained listener, and in “banal” experience we simply identify the stage with the event. The rising triad at the beginning of the Mozart piano piece is just an ornament to the events 1, 7, 1.


The positive program of an object-oriented critique of galant schema theory is to focus on this event/stage or content/form distinction for any given scale of schema. Initially, of course, we would concentrate on the “midsize” (phrase level) schema object since that is where Gjerdingen has done his work. One application – the one I’ll concentrate on – is in making judgments about particular instances of schemata that go a bit further than Gjerdingen’s own analytical practice of listing them out like ingredients in a recipe.

I see three basic categories:

(1) The schema object (SO-SQ). Given the underlying social context of galant schemata, I would expect the most typical sort of case to involve an artful but prudent and carefully regulated presentation of a schema. In such an instance, the composer or improviser follows the script but tailors it to the situation. This is analogous to the SO-SQ tension, or “time” (in some of Harman’s writings, “simulation” or “confrontation”). The schema occupies the object position, and its stages unfold with an excess of non-schema qualities.

Within this category, we should expect to find a variety of approaches to style-defining aspects such as elaboration, distortion of expectations, and regional or composer-specific tendencies (favored kinds of elaboration, and so forth). These sorts of judgments mean diving into a new scale of object, namely the schema stage as opposed to the schema proper.

(2) The schema allusion (RO-SQ). Next, I would expect the more adventurous and spicy galant composers (such as Mozart and Haydn) to employ schemata in especially weird ways. In these cases, the schema occupies the quality position. (Of course, the grounding object is still at the same scale as the schema). That is, schema qualities fuse with a non-schema ground allusively: “These two measures are like a Prinner yet cannot be said to be a Prinner…” The schema is not just distorted, but fully transformed.

One might expect a music theorist to provide clear criteria for distinguishing between the first and second situation, but OOO cannot escape a certain amount of ambiguity here, since it is dealing with specific and often unique cases. We have to judge them ad hoc. The key is to avoid stamping a hard and fast identity on the schema, and instead to use oblique language to hint at its identity. For instance, a Prinner might literally “stop” halfway through (6-5…5…), but then it can easily be made to blend into the cadence following it (…4-3-2-1). Depending on other details, we could then say something like: “Mozart starts a Prinner but stalls out on the second stage. Instead of repeating the schema, as was common practice at the time, Mozart stretches out the second stage in a moment of suspense before suddenly releasing the built-up tension in a cadential flourish.” Gjerdingen is actually quite good at preserving such ambiguity, and whenever he does I can’t help but think he subverts his own arguments against “anachronism.”

(3) The elemental schema. Finally, the schema may be presented in a paired-down manner that at first seems to suit Gjerdingen’s more “literal” approach. In the quotation above, he calls it a “simple presentation.” Of course, even the barest identification between schema stages and events does not collapse the schema into its qualities. We owe it to the nature of music that we are stuck scanning a moving profile of something larger, and schemata unfold one piece at a time. Nevertheless, the shifting excess of a schema’s qualities in this third category would be so minimal that the object-quality link can be said to not become explicit. The listener might say, “that’s nothing but a plain, unadorned Prinner.”

What Gjerdingen describes as a simple presentation, OOO calls “banal.” But in my view, a baldly stated schema is anything but a “simple presentation” for the listener. A good source for grasping the complexity of the situation would be Harman’s work on Marshall McLuhan, particularly the parts where he outlines hot vs. cold media and cliché vs. archetype. The literal schema is the coldest of cold media, the visible excess of another medium at a moment of birth or death. It approaches the status of quality, and can be read as either formulaic clutter or archetypal retrieval in tension with another background. It takes work for the object-oriented listener of a bare schema to decide if she ought to attend to subtle decisions by the performer, or engross herself in the wider formal arc of the piece, or get hypnotized by the atmosphere of the familiar sounds like a crackling fire, or notate the schema as a prototype in a student workbook for future use, or just be bored and annoyed by the overcooked gestures of yesteryear.


Commentary on schemata that subscribes to these fundamental categories must be attentive to more than just isolated schemata. A larger piece sometimes contributes to the logic of the individual segment, and likewise one chunk of music can inform the way a composer deals with others. Contrary to those who think OOO simply wants to isolate its objects, OOO actually wants to clarify the (limited) contributions of one object to the reality of another.

Notice also that the object-oriented listener of galant schemata has to be especially attentive to levels of scale. A schema can be a stage of a larger musical chunk, and a schema stage can be divided into meaningful pieces.

Finally, all of this takes place in the context of an attachment between listener and schema. The risk of this model is of turning the rigor and precision of music theory into a relativist heap of subjective judgment. But two points: First, I would emphasize that attachment in OOO is properly anti-relativist precisely in the sense that it produces a new reality, which in turn challenges the judgment of others as a real force in the world. Second, while schemata should not be touted as universal cognitive laws with a direct line on reality, they do help to answer a need for shared points of contact among communities of listeners. If music theory risks dogmatism and arrogance, it wildly succeeds where it seeks out a common vocabulary, and schemata seem like particularly valuable allusions to everyday listening behaviors. (Analyses of chord progressions and the like can appear quite abstract by comparison.)

There are surely other things to say, but the above should give an idea of what I think an object-oriented view on musical schema theory would look like. Part of what grabs me here is the rich potential for using schemata in music criticism. I am also excited by the way the OOO critique of schemata allows (or positively demands) that theoretical investigation of schemata be expanded to other time periods, different criteria for identifying events, and new levels of scale. I also should note what I see as the truth behind Gjerdingen’s taxonomic emphasis on short chunks of music. As I’ve mentioned, his theory points to a fundamental distinction between abstracted qualities and tangible units, but it also points to more limited differences between the ways we attend to details, phrases, sections, and so forth. No matter how much I appreciate “structural listening,” I can’t help but be drawn to the easy immediacy and endless variability of phrase-length schemata.


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