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



Chapter 42. Primitivism

Chapter 41.
. Image
Chapter 43.
Chapter 44.
Chapter 45.
Chapter 46.
Chapter 47.
Chapter 48.
Chapter 49.
Chapter 50.
Chapter 51.
Chapter 52.

PRIMITIVISM: an appeal to the intellect

ImagePablo Picasso:
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon
Picasso juxtaposes recognizable images with unfamiliar ones (the masks on the two women at the right, for instance), creating new effects from simple colors and lines. 1906


PRIMITIVISM, unlike Impressionism, uses musical elements that are well-defined and clear. Primitivistic music (note the adjective; this is not about "primitive" music) is tonal, but the tonality is not achieved through expectation of resolution, as in the Common Practice Period, but through the asserting of one note as more important than others. New sounds are synthesized from old ones by juxtaposing two simple events to create a more complex new event.

Primitivism has links to EXOTICISM (use of materials from other cultures), NATIONALISM (use of materials indigenous to specific countries), and ETHNICISM (use of materials from European ethnic groups). It eventually evolved into Neo-classicism.



At a glance:

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

  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 Primitivism:

    1. Tonality is achieved through the process of ASSERTION. The most important pitch (tonic) is asserted by emphasizing one note over all others, usually with several simultaneous means such as strong beat placement, agogic stress (longer note values), or serving as the point of departure and return.

    2. Phrases can be either regular or irregular, and end with many varieties of non-formulated cadences.

  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 Primitivism:

    1. Melodic sources can come from scales and modes, but tend to be PANDIATONIC (each pitch made equal, avoiding a hierarchy of function). As in Impressionism, these scales and modes are labelled by taking a pitch inventory centered around the asserted tonic.

    2. Melodic sources, like Impressionism, can also use non-traditional scales such as pentatonic or whole tone scales, or patterns of unusual or unique design such as the OCTATONIC scale or SYNTHETIC scales (new pitch formations created by the composer).

    3. Frequently, only segments of scales (or modes) are used. These segments, which fall into stepwise patterns, are named for the bottom note (unlike complete scales), the name of the scale (or mode), and for the number of notes used. It is possible to make any pitch in the segment into the tonic, through the process of assertion.

    4. A commonly found feature of Primitivism is the juxtaposition of two modalities simultaneously (BIMODALITY) or two tonalities simultaneously (BITONALITY). Once the separate modalities and tonalities are identified, it is important to analyze the composite effect of the juxtaposition.

      The composite created by bimodality and bitonality is generally calculated by comparing the two tonal centers. Two tonalities that create a dissonant interval (such as a second or tritone) are simply defined by that interval. Two tonalities that create a consonant interval are defined by the modality associated with that interval:

      • m3: minor modality, lower note is tonic
      • M3: major modality, lower note is tonic
      • P5: lower note is tonic, modality is defined by individual modalities
      • P4: equivalent to P5, but upper note is tonic
      • m6: convert to M3
      • M6: convert to m3

      Modality, in this context, refers to the quality of the pitch collection, and can be applied to major, minor, pentatonic, or whole tone scales, or to any non-traditional or synthetic pitch collections.

      In the example below, the E major of the top part combined with the C minor of the lower part creates a composite somewhat like C major (but clearly not the C major of the Common Practice Period).

      In certain situations, it is impossible to assign a single modality as a composite. When this occurs, both can be used to describe the piece. In the example below, the F major of the upper part combines with the F minor of the lower part to create an F major/minor composite.

  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 Primitivism:

    1. Counterpoint is commonly used, and is either strict or freely constructed.

    2. Strict counterpoint can consist of traditional techniques such as

      1. Melodic inversion (turning a line upside down)

      2. Canon (imitation)

      3. Mirror counterpoint (two lines in contrary counterpoint)

      4. Contrapuntal inversion (switching the placement of two lines)

    3. Ostinati are commonly used.

  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 Primitivism:

    1. Harmonies can fall into traditional tertian constructions, quartal (or quintal) harmonies found in Impressionism, or chords built in 2nds (called secundal harmonies, or clusters).

      The density of these harmonies can be triads, tetrads, pentads, and larger; they can be generated from conterpoint, planed (as in Impressionism), or simply stacked into the music.

    2. Two different harmonies can be juxtaposed on top of each other to create POLYCHORDS.

  5. Time organization

    In the Common Practice Period: The essential time organization is based on a consistent and unchanging beat. These beats organize into 2, 3, or 4 essential pulses per measure, with the first beat always the strongest. Each beat can sub-divide into two parts (simple meters) or three parts (compound meters).

    In Primitivism:

    1. Rhythms have clear profiles, but can occur in complex structures of non-traditional asymmetric meters.

    2. Meters can have beats of unequal length.

    3. Meters may change frequently.

      The example above shows meters actually changing. On occasion, the meters may change with un-metered cross rhythms.

    4. Two or more meters can be juxtaposed on top of each other to create POLYMETERS. This can be done by actually using different meter signatures in each part (first example below) or by using a neutral meter signature and notate cross rhythms (second example below).




Analyze the pitch materials and phrase design, and locate all the musical elements that are typical, characteristic, or unique to Primitivism in the following pieces in Music for Analysis:

  1. Bartok: Mikrokosmos, no.70: Melody against Double Notes Listen to a performance
  2. Bartok: Mikrokosmos, no.101: Diminished Fifth [#417] Listen to a performance
  3. Bartok: 44 Violin Duets, no.33 [#437] Listen to a performance


Write a Primitivistic piece for piano, one page or less, which is a complete musical thought of at least two phrases of at least 5 measures. Consider the musicality of your work; Bartok often employs thin textures of simple two voice counterpoint. 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. Create two pitch inventories, in scale segments, that represent bi-modality and bi-tonality, and are completely unrelated (no common pitches or complements).
  2. Write a beautiful melody and an ostinato. Maintain the same pitch inventory throughout the entire piece in each voice, using accidentals rather than a key signature.
  3. Use a Primitivistic time organization such as an asymmetric meter, many cross rhythms within the meter, or changing meters, always with proper beaming to show the larger beats.
  4. Use melodic and contrapuntal inversion in the second phrase.
  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.
  6. Add a brief codetta which clarifies, emphasizes, or recalls the two tonalities and modalities.
  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 Primitivism project


Copyright © 2008-2009 by Phillip Magnuson.

Content on this website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.