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



Chapter 31. The 123's of Schenkerian Analysis

Chapter 29. Review and expansion
Chapter 30. Harmonic and melodic patterns


Heinrich Schenker (1867-1935), musicologist and music theorist, created a unique system of musical analysis. He found a way to combine the component elements of melody, harmony, counterpoint, and form into an all-encompassing analysis, revealing the structure of the piece of music. Schenker achieves this by representing the music in a series of layers.

31.2 THE 123's

There are three groups of these layers and each has three subdivisions:

  1. Lines:
    1. Soprano
    2. Bass
    3. Harmony (includes inner voices)
  2. Structures:
    1. Prolongations
    2. Connections
    3. Cadences
  3. Levels:
    1. Foreground
    2. Middleground
    3. Background

Each of these layers, and their subdivisions, relates and cross-references the others. When they are assembled into a graph, the result is a cross between musical notation and a three-dimensional algebraic graph.

Schenkerian analysis can be applied to any musical expanse: phrase, period, section, complete movement, and even the larger composite form. This chapter will only deal with the analysis at the smallest level, the phrase, such as this fragment from a piano sonata by Mozart:


This information being presented is a paraphrase of Schenkerian analysis, done for undergraduate music students. It does not follow the strict techniques that Schenker developed, and uses some symbols differently. The purpose is to provide a way of observing music which can eventually lead to formal Schenkerian analysis.

31.4 LINES

Common Practice Period music relies heavily on the interaction of all voices to provide direction to a phrase, especially the outer voices.

  1. The Soprano provides the primary melodic identity to any given piece of music, as discussed in Chapter 23.
  2. The Bass line provides support to the soprano, as discussed in Chapter 24.
  3. The Harmony is a reflection of the interaction of all voices, including the alto and tenor.

These lines are represented on a graph in three HORIZONTAL layers.


  1. Prolongations frequently expand tonic areas, so they are built on scale degrees ^1, ^3, or ^5.

  2. Connections are sometimes present; their purpose is to provide a link between the prolongation and the cadence.

  3. Cadences are always present; a phrase cannot end without one.
    1. Authentic cadences
      • Perfect
        • Soprano: ^2 - ^1 or ^7 - ^8
        • Bass: ^5 - ^1
        • Harmony: dominant to tonic
      • Imperfect
        • Soprano: ^4 - ^3 (among other possibilities)
        • Bass: ^2 - ^1 or ^7 - ^8
        • Harmony: dominance of any kind to tonic
    2. Half cadences
      • Soprano: ^2 or ^7
      • Bass: ^5
      • Harmony: dominant
    3. Deceptive cadences
      • Soprano: resembles perfect or imperfect authentic cadences
      • Bass: ^5 - ^6 (among other possibilities)
      • Harmony: dominant to submediant (among other possibilities)

These structures are represented on a graph in three VERTICAL layers.


Levels in the music are the crux of the graphing process. Each level is represented with a different notational system.

  1. Foreground

    The foreground is the complete piece of music as heard in performance, down to the smallest detail. The foreground IS the piece of music, and every item the composer includes is important.

    To begin the analysis process it is useful to make a FOREGROUND REDUCTION of the soprano and bass lines (represented by solid noteheads) by eliminating all items which do not contribute to the larger structure:

    The register of the pitches is irrelevant, since structure describes scale degrees rather than actual pitches. Place them on the staff in the octave that best avoids the use of leger lines.

    Another part of the foreground is the Roman numeral analysis, which represents the sum total of the counterpoint.

  2. Middleground

    The middleground shows how the large structural areas are prolonged, and are represented by adding explanations to the foreground reduction:

  3. Background

    The background is generally represented by stemmed open noteheads (resembling half-notes) and is the most basic framework of the music; this level is reduced to only a few notes.

These layers will be represented on our graph in three notational planes. Notice that the levels do not represent any time organization, so meter is irrelevant (the bar lines are kept to line the graph up with the foreground). When all the layers are interlocked, the resulting graph will represent all aspects about the piece.


  1. Prolonged scale degrees

    When a given scale degree is prolonged, both the beginning and end of the prolongation will be united with a beam. Beams always indicate the prolongation of a single scale degree, and can be applied to middleground as well as background. Beams NEVER cross stems to another scale degree.

  2. Voice exchange

    The VOICE EXCHANGE (also known by its German name, STIMMTAUSCH) is a frequently found technique of prolongation. Two voices, usually the soprano and bass, actually exchange pitches in a given harmony, which creates activity but does not change the harmonic area, thereby creating a prolongation. It is shown by connecting the like pitches with lines, which will create an "X".

  3. Implied scale degrees

    On occasion, it is necessary to fill in a "missing" downward step in a background. This may be accomplished in only two circumstances:

  4. Dotted slurs

    Slurs specifically indicate two or more pitches being part of a common harmonic area. There are circumstances, however, in which two (or more) pitches may be closely related harmonically, but not necessarily part of the same exact harmonic area (e.g., tonic and submediant). In situations such as this, the slur is dotted to show a relationship but that this relationship is not exact.

    If a graph becomes especially complex, sometimes the dotted slur is dropped with the understanding that a slur shows general substitutive areas.

  5. Opening motions

    On occasion, the musical structure clearly is moving up; this action is called an OPENING MOTION, which is a cross between middleground and background. Opening motions move both up and down, by leap or by step, and represent how the beginning of a background motion is approached later in a phrase. Opening motions are represented with stemmed solid noteheads (resembing quarter notes) with scale degree caps (and accompanying explanation such as slurs or embellishment type), thus showing their "hybrid" nature of both middleground and background.

  6. Modulation

    When a piece of music modulates, there is no substantial change in the graphing process. Since scale degrees define soprano lines, pitches may seem to leap, but the actual scale degree motion still follows proper descending stepwise motion.

  7. Non-background connections

    Some connections are part of the background motion, and are shown with half-notes as part of the descending stepwise motion in the soprano. However, some connections cannot be placed in a descending stepwise motion; these will be represented as important middleground events.


Continuing with the same Mozart excerpt, a Schenkerian graph is added. Below it are the procedural steps necessary to create this graph. Before you review the steps, locate the following parts:

  1. Lines: soprano, bass, and harmony
  2. Structures: prolongation, connection, and cadence
  3. Levels: foreground, middleground, and background


The following is a series of analysis projects. The odd numbers guide you through the steps, the even numbers are for you to do alone. Use the table below to allow you to jump from one to the other.

After the analysis projects have been done, you will have a final project to do on your own that will be graded.

Analysis 1. Beethoven: Sonata, op.2, no.3
Analysis 2. Haydn: Trio, Hob. XV:3
Analysis 3. Beethoven: Sonata, op.7
Analysis 4. Mozart: Sonata, K.281
Analysis 5. Mozart: Sonata, K.310
Analysis 6. Beethoven: Minuet
Analysis 7. Haydn: Sonatina, Hob. XVI:1
Analysis 8. Mozart: Waltz. K.567
Analysis 9. Beethoven: Sonata, op.14, no.2
Analysis 10. Mozart: Sonata, K.283
Analysis 11. Mozart: K.330
Analysis 12. Haydn: Sonata, Hob. XVI:34
Final Project

Links to chapters in this unit:
Chapter 29. Review and Expansion
Chapter 30. Harmonic and Melodic Patterns

Link to previous unit: THE ABC's OF CHORALE SETTING

Link to next unit: CHROMATIC PROCEDURES II: Modal Mixtures

Copyright 2008-2009 by Phillip Magnuson.

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