Week 5 of Analytic Techniques added the layer of ambiguity to our analysis. In this case, ambiguity refers to when an analysis of a selection of music is unclear. For example, tonal ambiguity occurs when the harmony does not imply a tonal center. The lecture material discussed tonal ambiguity in Bach’s Es ist genug from Cantata No. 60, the second movement of Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in Bb, K. 454, and Schumann’s Novelletten, Op. 21, No. 5. After reading an article on different types of musical ambiguity, the Discussion asked us to find a piece from the Classical or Romantic Eras in the Burkhart Anthology that contained a type of musical ambiguity. The Application analyzed the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for tonal ambiguity, and the Assignment asked us to do the same with the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101.

Application and Live Classroom 1

Prompt: As a way to prepare for this week's Ambiguity assignment, we will look at the Wagner Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, found on pp. 368–373 in the Burkhart. The Stein article discusses tonal, pitch, and rhythmic-metric ambiguity. As this work is considerable in length, we will concentrate on tonal aspects, specifically on the real and implied harmonic structure of the opening passage, (try and do a Roman numeral analysis of the first three measures), and how Wagner spins this idea out to m. 17. What is harmonically significant at this point? How does this event color the rest of the Prelude?

Discussion: The first Live Classroom provided some clarification that the lecture and reading material did not. To quote our instructor, “We are talking about deliberate ambiguity on the part of the composer, specifically leaving it open to multiple interpretations… serving a narrative purpose.” He clarified tonal ambiguity to refer to aurally being unsure of the tonal center. Relative major/minor tonalities can be ambiguous, but parallel major/minor tonalities are modal mixture, not ambiguity. Metric ambiguity refers to aurally being unsure of where the pulse is through the use of cross-accents, figuration, hemiola, etc. He also provided a few hints about finding ambiguity:

  • Music that is modulating is not necessarily ambiguous. It is only if it clouds the perception of what key a piece is in (e.g. Intro to Beethoven 5).

  • The development section is most likely not ambiguous because it is supposed to cycle through tonalities.

  • Chords not resolving the way they should is a case for ambiguity.

  • Ambiguity could be chords that are missing pieces

The first few measures of the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde provide an excellent example of tonal ambiguity. The following piano reduction was found on

Examples of Ambiguity

  • First 3 pitches: A, F, E. Could be an F major or D minor chord with E functioning as a passing tone OR an A major/minor chord with F functioning as an appoggiatura.

  • Tristan Chord in measure 2: F-B-D#-G#. Sounds like an F half-diminished seventh chord (F-Cb-Eb-Ab) which typically functions as a supertonic (iiø) in Eb minor. This should resolve to a Bb dominant.

  • G# rises to A in measure 2. Now sounds like a French Augmented 6th Chord (Fr+6: F-B-D#-A) implying the key of A. This should resolve to the dominant, E, which it does in measure 3.

  • Measures 5–7. Follow a similar resolution of the Tristan chord, now implying a tonal center of C.

  • Measures 8–11. Follow a similar resolution of the Tristan chord, now implying a tonal center of E.

Now the combined examples of ambiguity are beginning to reveal a tonal center. The three resolutions of the Tristan chord have outlined an A minor triad (A-C-E). Measures 11–17 continue to imply the key of A minor by extending the E dominant harmony and resolving deceptively to an F major chord (VI in Am). Our instructor linked this ambiguity with the plot of Tristan und Isolde—murky, ambiguous feelings that are never fulfilled.

Discussion Board

Prompt: Begin by reading Deborah Stein's article, Introduction to Musical Ambiguity, (pp. 77–88), in Engaging Music. Identifying a piece of music of your own choosing, (from either the Classic or Romantic sections of the Burkhart), which displays one (or more) of the types of ambiguity discussed in the reading and the lecture. The piece need not be very long, even a section of a larger work would be appropriate. Present, in outline form, your example of ambiguity in as clear and persuasive a manner as you can, specifying the type of ambiguity present as modeled in the readings. As always, you are free, and encouraged, to comment on any other presentation in your section once you have completed your own work. Remember, this is to be an outline only; you do not have to do a full-blown analysis, just explain your view of the ambiguous elements of the chosen work, with some specific references. (Think of this outline as the first phase of a hypothetical larger assignment.)

Discussion: The Stein article used Schumann’s Im wunderschönen Monat Mai (Dichterliebe, Op. 48), Brahms’ Intermezzo in Bb major (Eight Piano Pieces, Op. 76, No. 2), and Bartók’s Boating (Mikrokosmos, No. 125) to discuss tonal ambiguity, pitch ambiguity, and rhythmic-metric ambiguity. I’ve already defined tonal ambiguity and rhythmic-metric ambiguity above. Stein defined pitch ambiguity as involving “ambiguity of harmonic function,” which I interpret as similar to tonal ambiguity, in that the pitches do not define a specific tonal center.

Response: Beethoven uses rhythmic ambiguity in the third movement of his Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1 (Burkhart & Rothstein, 2012, pp. 254–255). The third movement is a minuet and trio that begins in F minor and modulates to F major for the trio. The piece is in 3/4, and in measures 25–28 and nearly all of the trio, Beethoven wrote consistent eighth note lines. In the minuet, both hands play in octaves, and in the trio, the streaming eighth notes are laid against a quarter-note based melody. The eighth notes create a duple rhythmic feel against the triple meter of the melody. This is because Beethoven employed neighboring tones and passing tones on the second and fourth eight notes. For example, in measure 41, the melodic bass line outlines an F major triad while the eighth note line incorporates G as both a neighboring and passing tone with F and A. This pattern continues throughout the trio. It is further emphasized in measure 59 when an additional harmony is added in the right hand beginning on the fourth eighth note. The ambiguity is resolved by the quarter note motion in measures 28 and measure 73 at the da capo to the minuet.

Assignment and Live Classroom 2

Prompt: For this week's assignment, we will look at the first movement of a late Beethoven work, the Piano Sonata No. 28 in A major, Op. 101. While this work does exhibit all of the general characteristics of sonata form that one might expect—the manner in which the constituent parts are employed is somewhat obscured. At the highest level, the movement contains an exposition, development, recapitulation and coda, but the musical material does not overtly display the form-defining relationships between clear cadences and harmonic structure, phrase rhythm, thematic contrast, and melodic character, that we often associate with the classical sonata.

In this movement, the unfolding of the sonata principle seems more like a process than a form. The opening gesture of the movement is more a question than a statement, setting the tone for the music to follow. The opening theme does not have a clearly defined boundary. The arrival to the key of the dominant is clear, but the identity of the second theme is ambiguous—there is more than one possibility suggested by the harmonic, melodic, and textural cues of surface design. There is little dramatic contrast in the exposition, rather a consistent lilting flow. The development is short, typically unstable harmonically, but without the usual dominant pedal or tonic preparation at the end. The point of recapitulation itself is not clear—again, there is more than one possibility. The tonic arrival in the recapitulation has special significance, given all of the music which has preceded it. The coda, as is often the case in Beethoven, gives a sense of tying things together.

  1. Listen to and/or play through the music repeatedly until you know it well. Once you have familiarized yourself thoroughly with the music, analyze the large-scale structure of the piece. (Be sure to not get caught up in a measure-to-measure, blow-by-blow, analytic approach, at the start of the process.) Determine the boundaries of the Exposition, Development, Recapitulation, and Coda, listing them clearly in some fashion, including measure numbers, in either prose or a simple chart, as you prefer. As mentioned above, determining the point of the Recapitulation requires some thinking; make note of the possibilities and the reasons for your decision.

  2. Analyze the next level of structure, which entails the main subdivisions of the four main areas. In the Exposition and Recapitulation, think about the succession of subsections and their usual melodic and harmonic associations:

    • first theme (in the tonic key)

    • bridge or transition (moving to the key of dominant)

    • second theme (in the key of dominant—where does it begin?)

    • closing theme (is there one?)

      In determining the boundaries between sections, think about what types of cadences define them. There are not a lot of strong, perfect authentic cadences in the piece. In the absence of the most obvious harmonic markers, thinking in terms of phrase structure and surface design will be very helpful. Again, make note of the possibilities and the reasons for your choices. For the Development, analyzing in terms of surface design and phrase structure should be your principal strategy. For the Coda, think about how the content relates back to the experience of the previous three sections. As in step No. 1, list the main subdivisions clearly in some fashion, including measure numbers, in either prose or a simple chart, as you prefer.

  3. Perform a Roman numeral analysis of only the Development section. The harmonic rhythm in the piece varies considerably; many chords are prolonged over multiple measures through passing motion in upper voices, (such as the opening V7 chord in mm. 1–2, and the Fsharp minor chord in mm. 41–43), while other passages contain several chords per measure. Let the movement of the Bass be your guide. The Development does not stray too far from home harmonically; it begins in E major, the key of the dominant, proceeds with a series of tonicizations of other diatonic chords within the home key of A major, and, toward the end, expands one of these tonicizations into a move to a closely-related key area. This trajectory is arrested, and the music turns back toward the tonic. Write your analysis on a clean copy of the score for submission. Even though you are not doing a complete Roman numeral analysis of the other sections of the movement, you will need to think about harmony to answer the questions below.

  4. Write answers to the following questions, each as a brief essay paragraph or two:

    • What were the possibilities and reasons for the choices you made about the sections of the Exposition, including how harmony, thematic structure, and other aspects of surface design contributed? Be specific.

    • What was unusual about the relationship of cadences to sectional boundaries?

    • How does the harmonic rhythm change from the beginning of the Development section to the end, and how does surface design help to communicate this process?

    • What makes the arrival of the tonic in the Recapitulation such an important event in this particular movement?

    • What function do you think the Coda serves in relation to the music that has gone before?

Response: Similar to Week 4, I found this week’s assignment relatively easy to complete. Beethoven breaks stylistic considerations of Sonata form by rarely using tonic chords, not repeating the Exposition, recapitulating the first theme in the parallel minor, and using deceptive cadences to establish sectional boundaries. In fact, the only time we get a tonic chord of any relative strength is in the Coda—the last few measures of the piece. The rest of the time tonic chords appear they are metrically weak or incomplete. Beethoven also employed metric ambiguity through the use of hemiola in the transition material.


Burton Hable

Burton Hable is an instrumental music educator from Central Iowa. In 2013 he helped open Centennial High School in Ankeny, the first time in forty years that a school district in Iowa expanded to two high schools. He served there through 2018 as Assistant Director of Bands: conducting the 10th Grade Symphonic Band, directing the varsity Jazz Collective, co-directing the Centennial Marching and Pep Bands, teaching music theory, and providing individual and small group lessons to brass students in grades 6-12 at Prairie Ridge Middle School, Northview Middle School, and Centennial High School. During his tenure in Ankeny, enrollment in band grew from 450 to nearly 700, the jazz program expanded from four to seven ensembles, and ensembles under his direction were invited to perform at Iowa State University, Harper College, and the Veterans Day Parade in New York City.