More On Antecedent and Consequent Phrases

Antecedent-Consequent phrase combinations are the basic form of melodic shape in Western tonal music. The formal characteristics of this combination has been used as a template for composing melodic phrases in music education settings. For example, students can be told to write four measures beginning on the tonic tone and ending on the dominant tone, then four more measures beginning on the dominant tone and ending on the tonic tone. With other parameters in place, satisfactory results can be obtained using this procedure, provided that students are prepared to audiate what they write as they go.

This is a useable approach, but is too simplistic to impute a true understanding of antecedent-consequent phrase combinations in the context of Western tonal music. Antecedent and consequent phrases are the by-product of functional harmony. In music wherein a tonic and dominant relationship is established, common practice is to create patterns of tension and release. Music is most at rest on the tonic harmony, and less so on the dominant harmony. As music moves from the tonic toward the dominant, tension increases when music arrives back at the tonic from the dominant, the tension is released, and a new pattern begins. This happens at the level of individual phrases, but also at the levels of themes, theme groups, sections, movements, and even in certain instances in entire works. One can generally say that the opening tonic harmony tenses into the dominant which then relaxes even more strongly into the final tonic. That final tonic might be of a phrase, or of a movement.

Consider a typical sonata-allegro form. The movement begins on the tonic, introducing the thematic content. The music then modulates to the dominant for the development section, in which other tonalities may be explored, and in which tension is brought to a heightened level by several means, chief among them the move away from the tonic. Finally, the recapitulation brings us back to the tonic key which bings with it resolution, finality, and a release of the tension that came before it. We see that the exposition can be seen as a long antecedent group, and the development can be seen as a long consequent group because it returns us to the tonic from the dominant.

We get to this overall antecedent-consequent form through many intervening antecedent-consequent phrases; however, if we stick with an understanding of antecedent-consequent phrase as always following a strict tonic-dominant-tonic pattern, we will lose our way. Not every phrase begins or ends on the tonic or dominant, particularly in the development section. Whereas tonic to dominant is the prototypical form of an antecedent phrase and dominant to tonic is the prototypical form of a consequent phrase, the effect can and often is created with other chord functions as well. The constant is not the specific chord used, but the creation of tension in an antecedent and of relaxation in a consequent. This can be achieved with any number of altered chords, among them augmented sixth chords, secondary dominants, Neapolitan sixth chords, and so forth. As long as the listener is audiating a tonic, no matter how temporary it may be, there is always a way to introduce something foreign to that tonic that will create tension, and then remove that disturbance to bring in relaxation.

There is also a rhythmic component that must not be overlooked. Besides the harmonic pattern involved, there is also a rhythmic aspect. After all, antecedent-consequent is a pairing of two items. They make a complementary pair. Although they are headed in harmonically opposite directions, they are balanced and inseparable. We see comparable pairings all around us; things like up and down, dark and light, or loud and soft. These are all pairings of opposition, but it is exactly that opposition that gives each a clearer meaning. One cannot understand dark without knowing light, nor can one understand loud without knowing soft. Too much light and we forget what darkness is. Too much loud and we forget what soft is, and both darkness and softness loose their meanings. Antecedents must balance consequents, so that the relationship between them, the building of tension and the relaxing of it, is clear. There also must be similarity between the antecedent and consequent, so that we have something familiar off of which tension of relaxation can be built. We can see the need for this similarity with an example from language.

Bob’s new bicycle is red. The paint on the house is damaged. These are two innocuous statements that don’t seem to be related or create any tension beyond perhaps wondering how the house paint got damaged. But if we show a relationship between these two sentences, we can easily realize the potential for creating tension. “Bob’s new bicycle is red and already damaged from the collision. The paint on the house is damaged.” We can add more tension by introducing an element that takes us further from a conclusion. “Bob’s new bicycle is red and already damaged from the collision. His father just painted the house and told Bob not to ride his new bicycle on his own. The paint on the house is damaged.” We now have an antecedent comprised of three sentences that has left us wanting to know what Bob’s father is going to do when he sees what has happened. Whatever happens, the sentences that tell us will form the consequent. If those next sentences told us what the sale price of salmon is this week at the local grocer, that could not be a consequent because it does not resolve the tension, and it does not resolve the tension because it is not related, it does not bring us to a state of conclusion or repose that we expect. In music, if the consequent is not related rhythmically, it would be a stretch at best for it to function as a consequent.

The concept of antecedent and consequence is essential to musical understanding. It figures not only into understanding music to which we listen, but also into interpreting, rehearsing, performing and composing music. It is worthy of enduring understanding and essential question status. Perhaps these might be stated something like this: “Musicians use antecedents and consequents to respond to, create, and perform music.” “How do musicians use antecedents and consequents in listening to, creating, and performing music?


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