A Structural Examination of Tonality, Vocabulary, Texture,
Sonorities, and Time Organization in Western Art Music



Chapter 41. Impressionism

. Image
Chapter 42.
Chapter 43.
Chapter 44.
Chapter 45.
Chapter 46.
Chapter 47.
Chapter 48.
Chapter 49.
Chapter 50.
Chapter 51.
Chapter 52.

IMPRESSIONISM: an appeal to the senses

ImageClaude Monet:
Water Lilies
Monet's painting of water lilies is deliberately vague, but through color and shading he creates the impression of flowers, clouds, and reflections. 1917


IMPRESSIONISM is named for the movement in art history which favored the representation of the "idea" of an object rather than the object itself; where light and color, rather than line and shape, define the images. Musical Impressionism also has a strong connection to symbolist poetry (as seen in the works of Charles Baudelaire and Stephane Mallarme). In the art, poetry, and music of Impressionism we find a common thread: an evocation of meaning without direct reference to reality. Impressionism is the recollection of memories where details give way to general impressions. This often results in a general cloudiness or vagueness in presentation since clearly delineated objects or ideas would provide a strong connection to reality.

In musical Impressionism, seen almost exclusively in the music of Claude Debussy, this means we find an obscuration of tonality, harmony, and rhythm. Tonality is vague, often defined only by pedal points. Counterpoint, the great defining feature of the Common Practice Period, is virtually non-existent; this is one of the greatest revolutions of the 20th century, and truly creates a definitive break from the past.

Impressionism in music seemed to have been dead-ended; even Debussy appeared to be moving in a different direction before his death in 1918. But the concepts developed in this style continue to influence composers even today.

Read more information about Impressionism at Impressionist Influences in the Music of Claude Debussy on the web.



At a glance:

basically maintains:x
generally modifies:xx
completely changes:xx

  1. Tonality

    In the Common Practice Period: The essential organization is around a single pitch, the tonic, which provides a home base to the ear. All other pitches work to establish the pre-eminence of tonic. Furthermore, an organization of phrases (generally made up of 4, 8, or 16 measures) expand the establishment of tonic; all phrases end with a cadence which confirms this sense of tonic.

    In Impressionism:

    1. Impressionistic music, like the Common Practice Period, is tonal. A single tonic is evident, although it does not achieve importance through specific voice leading (for example, through a leading tone). Instead, tonic is created in other ways, such as repetition or being the central pitch, or even more simply, through the use of a pedal point.

    2. Melodies are often irregular in phrase design, and frequently are motivic in nature. Look at Debussy: Voiles [Music for Analysis #412, CD track #97] as an example.

    3. Unlike the music of the Common Practice Period. Impressionistic cadences are less formulated and can be constructed in many different ways. They might move in a root motion of 3rds (such as III to I), or be plagal (IV to I), or even be authentic but without a leading tone (such as minor v to I). They generally end on consonant structures, such as a simple tertian triad.

  2. Vocabulary

    In the Common Practice Period: The essential vocabulary is a diatonic pattern of seven stepwise pitches called major and minor scales. Chromatic pitches, the remaining five, can be used, but only to enhance the diatonic ones.

    In Impressionism:

    1. Melodies tend to be drawn from the traditional church modes, pentatonic scales, whole-tone scales, or many other non-traditional scale forms. The common thread to all of these is a lack of leading tones, which tends to weaken the expectation of tonic.

    2. The process that determines the mode or scale pattern being used is called a PITCH INVENTORY. To take an inventory, isolate the tonic (which can be as simple as locating an important pedal point). Taking that tonic, arrange all the other pitches after it as scale-like as possible. Finally, analyze the intervallic structure to describe the scale or mode.

    3. Chromaticism is often found, but rather than enhancing diatonic pitches it tends to be used in a free, coloristic manner, and is called FREE CHROMATICISM. Free chromaticism might be indicating a change of mode, as described in #1 of this section.

  3. Texture

    In the Common Practice Period: The essential texture is created with counterpoint, which is two or more simultaneous individual and independent lines, each of which confirms the pre-eminence of tonic and utilizes the vocabulary of a major or minor scale.

    In Impressionism:

    1. Counterpoint is virtually non-existent. When it is present, it is temporary, usually extremely simple, and done sparingly, and frequently tends to be located at cadential points.
    2. The typical musical texture is monolinear, meaning a single primary melodic line. This inherently simple texture in Impressionism is typically expanded into musical space with the addition of
      • pedal points: as described in Chapter 29), a pedal is a sustained pitch juxtaposed to some melodic or harmonic changes.
      • ostinati (singular "ostinato"): as described in Chapter 29), is a short melodic pattern that is repeated three or more times in close succession.
      • planing: a collection of parallel harmonies (the anathema of the Common Practice Period!) which might appear to be multi-linear but is in fact monolinear.

        Planing can be done diatonically (within the key), or chromatically, to preserve consistent sonorities (a good example of the free chromaticism mentioned above).

        The unit of planing (the harmonic structure which keeps repeating) can be any harmonic structure, such as tertian triads, tertian tetrads (as seen in the example above), or quartal harmonies as explained in the next section, and must remain the same for an extended period of time (such as most of a phrase).

        None of these devices contributes an independent voice to the texture.

  4. Sonorities

    In the Common Practice Period: The essential sonority (chord) is consonant and is a group of three notes (a triad) arranged in thirds (tertian). Dissonance is used, which could be a group of four notes arranged in thirds (a tertian tetrad) or non-chordal embellishments (passing and neighboring tones, suspensions, and pedals, among others). All dissonances are required to resolve.

    In Impressionism:

    1. Harmonies take on different constructions. This can be done with tertian harmonies (stacked in thirds) by adding more dissonances, such as 9-11-13th chords. One can also find triads that are constructed in 3 different notes a 4th apart (QUARTAL triads) or 3 different notes a 5th apart (QUINTAL triads).

      Note that the pitch content beat-for-beat is identical for the two examples above; even though the stacking of 4ths and 5ths are organized differently, it does not change the pitch content.

      Quartal and quintal harmonies can also be made up of 4 notes (tetrads), 5 notes (pentads), and more, and can be inverted (like tertian harmonies).

    2. Harmonic dissonances will not resolve in traditional ways (as seen in the planing example above).

  5. Time organization

    In the Common Practice Period: The essential time organization is based on simple or compound meters, with 2, 3, or 4 consistent beats per measure. The first beat is always the strongest, and the others take on various degrees of strength.

    In Impressionism:

    1. Strong beats tend to be obscured with ties, syncopations, and hemiolas.

    2. Compound meters, with frequent cross rhythms, are common. Please note the notation in the example below: although the three triads in measures 2 and 4 are all equal in length, the middle one is written as two eighth notes tied together. This shows where the second strong beat of the original meter falls. If three quarter notes were used, a different meter would be indicated (i.e., 3/4).




  1. Locate tonic and label the modes used in the following pieces in Music for Analysis:
    1. Bartok: Little Pieces for Children, No.III [#389]
    2. Chavez: Ten Preludes, no. 1 [#390]
    3. Poulenc: Valse [#391]
    4. Debussy: Trois Chansons, no.1 [#392]
  2. Locate all the musical elements that are typical, characteristic, or unique to Impressionism in the following pieces in Music for Analysis:
    1. Debussy: Pour le piano: Sarabande (meas.1-22) [#458, CD track #98] Listen to a performance
    2. Debussy: Preludes, X: La Cathedrale engloutie [#459, CD track #99] Listen to a performance
  3. Things to observe to find those musical elements:


Write an Impressionistic piece for piano, one page or less, which is a complete musical thought of at least two irregular phrases of at least 5 measures. Consider the musicality of your work; Debussy usually employs thin, somewhat spare textures. While there is much dissonance, the overwhelming effect is one of consonance. Play back your work on the computer through MIDI (or better yet, have someone perform it for you on the piano) to guide you. The final result must be playable.

To prepare this writing assignment properly, use the notation guidelines appendix, located at Basic Principles of Music Notation, Semester IV.

Submit a MIDI file via email in addition to a print-out of the project.

  1. Use the mixolydian mode (any tonality except C, G, or D; use accidentals rather than a key signature)
  2. Utilize some whole tone embellishment
  3. Use planing in both tertian and quartal triads and tetrads
  4. Use pedal points and an ostinato
  5. Provide an appropriate cadence for each phrase (marked with a fermata in both voices) which truly ends the phrase (and does not merely stop); one cadence must move in a root third motion
  6. Use a compound meter (notated with beats clearly shown by proper beaming), with frequent cross-rhythms
  7. Indicate tempo with a metronome marking (showing the correct beat unit)
  8. Indicate mood with descriptive word(s) in English
  9. Utilize a great variety of dynamics, and no "mezzo" dynamics
  10. Utilize a great variety of appropriate articulations for each note equal to one beat or smaller

The grading for this project:

Click here to view a sample Impressionism project


Copyright 2008-2009 by Phillip Magnuson.

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