The Concept of Plagality in Contemporary Music Theory

Evgeny A. Pinchukov


The concepts of the authentic and plagal cadences, which were developed in the medieval theory of modes, acquired their functional harmonic significance during the 19th century. The concept of the authentic cadence is connected with the dominant scale degree, while the plagal cadence is connected with the subdominant, which corresponds to the tradition of Rameau's teaching of the proportion triple and the Basse fondamentale. However, the aspiration to understand the creative experience of the Romantic composers generates the tendency of interpretation of these functional categories stemming from the priority of linear connections. In the 20th century the authentic cadence has been associated most often with the ascending leading tone, whereas the plagal cadence has been associated with the descending leading tone, albeit in a less assertive manner. The phenomena of the authentic and plagal cadences are not granted a status equal to each other, since our “common-practice tonality” is manifested in a tonal structure based on the authentic cadence. The latter is opposed by the modes associated with the plagal cadence, which have a specific plagal ethos and are based on the Phrygian and chromatic structures (including the Phrygian and the church cadence). The European ear tends to perceive their radical forms as exotic, alien or “other.” Consequently, there exist the authentic and the plagal principles of mode formation, which represent a supra-tonal level of relations. The reception of such representations as a conceptual model creates new dimensions in understanding the tonal system and the panorama of its evolution.

Keywords: plagal system, descending leading tone, the church cadence iv–I, the Phrygian cadence vii-I, the half-diminished seventh chord as the penultimate chord

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