In music theory, prolongation refers to the process in tonal music through which a pitch, interval, or consonant triad is able to govern spans of music when not physically sounding. It is a central principle in the music-analytic methodology of Schenkerian analysis, and it is a concept conceived by Austrian theorist Heinrich Schenker.[1]

Prolongation can be thought of as a way of generating musical content through the linear elaboration of simple and basic tonal structures with progressively increasing detail and sophistication.[2] Important to the operation of prolongation is the hierarchical differentiation of pitches within a passage of tonal music. Typically, the note or harmony of highest hierarchical significance is the tonic, and this is said to be "prolonged" across durations of music that may feature many other different harmonies. (However, in principle any other type of consonant chord, pitch, or harmonic function can be prolonged within tonal music.) Conversely, in a chord progression, harmonies are said to prolong a triad when they are subordinated to that governing chord in a systematic manner; the job of such prolonging harmonies is to express and extend the influence of that hierarchically super-ordinate pitch or triad.[3] Because it enables a pitch or pitches to remain in effect over the course of a piece, even as many other harmonic events intervene, prolongation is central to the concept of tonality in music.


Prolongation in Heinrich Schenker

The early 20th-century music theorist Heinrich Schenker (1868–1935) was responsible for developing both the conceptual framework for prolongation and a means of analyzing music in terms of prolonged musical structures (called Schenkerian analysis).

Schenker’s own usage of the term differs from the modern one. The word Prolongation is not common in German and Schenker first used it in a very specific meaning (maybe originating in legal, possibly Viennese vocabulary), referring to the extension of the laws of strict composition in free composition.[4] The meaning of the term later shifts to denote the phenomena resulting from these laws.[5] It may be claimed, therefore, that for Schenker a prolongation is either the extended application of a fundamental law (Urgesetz) or of a fundamental concept (Urbegriff),[6] or the phenomena resulting from such an extended application.

In his analysis of J. S. Bach's Little Prelude in d minor, BWV 926, in Der Tonwille 5, Schenker proposes what may be his earliest figure showing the steps through which the Ursatz develops into the foreground. He explains that this figure "shows the gradual growth of the voice-leading prolongations, all predetermined in the womb of the Urlinie".[7] The "gradual growth" illustrated is a global phenomenon, always concerning the piece as a whole. The figure is further commented upon on p. 45 of the same volume (probably because it was the first of its kind). Schenker stresses that it starts with the two-voice setting of the Ursatz – an expression, therefore, of the fundamental laws of strict counterpoint. Each of the following steps is described as a prolongation, a specific freedom taken with respect to the laws expressed in the previous step. In the many similar figures of later analyses, Schenker always describes the passing from one level to the next as a prolongation. And in Freie Satz, he confirms that the word still refers to the passing from one voice-leading level to another: "For the sake of continuity with my earlier theoretical and analytical works, I am retaining in this volume the words of Latin derivation prolongation and diminution as designations for the voice-leading levels in the middelground".[8]

The concept of prolongation is important for Schenker because he believes that showing how a masterpiece of free composition remains rooted in the laws of strict counterpoint explains its utter unity, its "synthesis".[9] The means and techniques of passing from one level to the next are subsumed in Schenker's notion of "composing out" or "compositional elaboration" (Auskomponierung, a German neologism), which for him is a mechanism of elaborating pitch materials in musical time.[10] The means of elaboration are described below as "Prolongational techniques", in conformity with the modern Schenkerian English usage, but should better be termed "elaborations".

Prolongational techniques

Urlinie: scale degree 3scale degree 2scale degree 1 over I–V–I About this sound Play . Linear progressions prolong harmonies through elaboration.[11]
Bass prolongation: I–IV–V–I About this sound Play as elaboration of I–V–I About this sound Play .[12]

In Schenkerian analysis, the analyst discerns ways in which prolongation creates the details of a musical composition by elaborating the background structure. Most of these methods involve contrapuntal processes, to the such a degree that Schenkerianism is a theory that almost completely synthesizes harmony and linear counterpoint in the service of the more global phenomenon of tonal prolongation. Some prolongational techniques include diminutions. A coda is a passage which brings a musical movement or work to a conclusion through prolongation. Methods of prolongation include horizontalization, the horizontal unfolding in time over a background governed by the vertical intervals found in the chord.[13][further explanation needed]

{Refer to page on Schenkerian Analysis.}

Conditions for Prolongation

Schenker intended his theory to apply only to music of the common practice period, and there to a select class of mostly Austro-German composers in a line from J.S. Bach to Johannes Brahms.[citation needed] Developments in more recent music theory have sought to clarify the conditions under which prolongation may obtain, so that other repertoires may either be opened up or more justifiably be precluded. Schenker pupil Felix Salzar, for example, detects the rudiments of prolongational horizontalization in music as early as 12th Century plainchant, and argues that it is a musical principle that persists through post-tonal music as well, such as Paul Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky.[14] Music theorist Robert Morgan has argued that a central tenet of Schenkerian thought—that only consonant triads are capable of prolongation—needlessly excludes a class of dissonant sororities, such as diminished sevenths or a more arbitrarily defined set of pitches; Morgan claims that starting in the 19th Century, composers such as Liszt, Wagner, and Scriabin, began "composing out" these dissonant configurations as rigorous a manner as is usually ascribed to the triadic prolongation of tonal composers.[15]

Atonal music poses a stark challenge to prolongational hearing and analysis, as its harmonic makeup by definition eschews the long-range controlling force of monotonality, and in most cases purposely abstains from consonant triads, or indeed referential or centric sonorities at all.[citation needed] Music theorist Joseph Straus has attempted to define more rigorously what it is about atonality that precludes prolongational hearing. His own definition of prolongation is "the sense of continuation of a musical object, particularly when not literally present ... prolongation is a cognitive act of the listener".[16] He formulated four conditions for the possibility of Schenkerian prolongation in any musical style (1987)[17] These are:

  1. Consistent distinction between consonance and dissonance.
  2. A scale of stability among consonant harmonies [see diatonic function].
  3. Ways in which less structural pitches embellish more structural pitches.
  4. A clear relationship between harmony and voice-leading.

Straus concludes that such conditions do not exist in atonal music and therefore that "atonal prolongation" is impossible. However, theorist Lerdahl argues that Straus' argument is based on circular criteria.[18] Lerdahl's own formulation of prolongation is more amenable to atonal structures. For example, in atonal music, strong prolongation may be distinguished from progression, repetition of an event versus movement to a different event, while weak prolongation, repetition of an event in altered form, may not easily be distinguished due to the lack of a referential triad (klang).[19]

See also


  1. ^ "It is one of the most valuable services of Schenkerian theory to have revealed for the first time the unity of composing-out and the prolonged application and validity of the laws of voice leading." Oswald Jonas, Introduction to the Theory of Heinrich Schenker, trans. John Rothgeb (New York: Longman, 1982), p. 54.
  2. ^ William Drabkin. "Prolongation." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 2 Aug. 2011 <>.
  3. ^ Salzer, Felix (1962). Structural Hearing: Tonal Coherence in Music, p.111. ISBN 0486222756.
  4. ^ For instance when he explained that the task of the study of counterpoint is to reveal how its fundamental laws can be extended to apply to free composition: "But to reveal the basic form together with its variants, and [thereby] to uncover only prolongations of a fundamental law even where apparent contradictions hold sway – this alone is the task of counterpoint!" Kontrapunkt I (1910), p. 315; English translation (1987), p. 241.
  5. ^ Schenker claims among others that three-voice counterpoint is subject to the same laws as two-voice counterpoint, of which it represents a "prolongation": "In three-voice settings, the [laws of] two-voice settings actually continue to apply; three-voice setting therefore represents merely a prolonged phenomenon". Kontrapunkt II (1922), p. 1; English translation (1987), p. 1.
  6. ^ Kontrapunkt II, p. 208; English translation, p. 213.
  7. ^ Der Tonwille 5 (1923), p. 8, Fig. 1; English translation (2004), p. 180.
  8. ^ Der freie Satz, 2d edition (1956), § 45, p. 57; English translation (1979), p. 25.
  9. ^ Deriding the lack of the "art of prolongation" in Bruckner, he writes "his ear could not hear the beginning and end of a motion as an entity. The two points remain without inner relationship to one another; and everything shoved and squeezed in between, though executed with so much art on an individual level, exhausts itself purely physically without any concern for connection." Der Tonwille 5, p. 46; English translation, p. 213.
  10. ^ William Drabkin, loc. cit.
  11. ^ Pankhurst, Tom (2008). Schenker Guide: A Brief Handbook and Website for Schenkerian Analysis, p.28. ISBN 0415973988.
  12. ^ Pankhurst (2008), p.51.
  13. ^ Salzer, Felix and Carl Schachter (1989). Counterpoint in Composition, p.144. ISBN 023107039X.
  14. ^ Salzer, Felix (1962). Structural Hearing: Tonal Coherence in Music, p. 267. ISBN 0486222756.
  15. ^ Morgan, Robert (1976). "Dissonant Prolongation: Theoretical and Compositional Precedents" in Journal of Music Theory 20/1, 49–91.
  16. ^ Schachter, Carl and Hedi Siegel, eds. (2006). Schenker Studies 2, p.178. ISBN 0521028329.
  17. ^ Straus, Joseph N. (1987). "The Problem of Prolongation in Post-Tonal Music", Journal of Music Theory 31, p.1-21. cited in Lerdahl (1989).
  18. ^ Lerdahl, Fred (1989). "Atonal Prolongational Structure", p.67, Music and the Cognitive Sciences. McAdams, Stephen and Irene Deliege, eds. ISBN 3718649535.
  19. ^ Lerdahl (1989), p.74.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • prolongation — [ prɔlɔ̃gasjɔ̃ ] n. f. • 1265; de prolonger 1 ♦ Action de prolonger dans le temps; résultat de cette action. ⇒ allongement, augmentation. Prolongation d une trêve, d un congé, d un contrat. Prolongation de peine. « je crains que la prolongation… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • prolongation — Prolongation. substantif feminin. Le temps qu on adjouste de plus à la durée de quelque chose. Aprés la prolongation de la treve. il a obtenu une prolongation de six mois. prolongation de terme …   Dictionnaire de l'Académie française

  • Prolongation — Pro lon*ga tion, n. [F. prolongation.] [1913 Webster] 1. The act of lengthening in space or in time; extension; protraction. Bacon. [1913 Webster] 2. That which forms an additional length. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • prolongation — late 15c., from Fr. prolongation (14c.), from noun of action from L. prolongare (see PROLONG (Cf. prolong)) …   Etymology dictionary

  • Prolongation — (lat.), Stundung, Verlängerung einer Lieferungs oder Zahlungsfrist. P. eines Wechsels, die dem Wechselschuldner von einem Wechselgläubiger bewilligte Fristverlängerung. Sie kann durch Ausstellung eines neuen Wechsels, oder durch Vermerk auf dem… …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Prolongation — Prolongatiōn (lat.), Verlängerung der Dauer eines Rechtsverhältnisses oder Zahlungsfrist; Prolongationswechsel ist nicht ein prolongierter Wechsel, sondern ein neuer Wechsel an Stelle eines alten; prolongieren, verlängern, Gestundung bewilligen …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • prolongation — index adjournment, advance (increase), boom (increase), continuance, deferment, delay, extension …   Law dictionary

  • Prolongation — Prolongation,die:⇨Verlängerung(2) …   Das Wörterbuch der Synonyme

  • prolongation — Prolongation, ou Prolongement, Prolongatio, Prolatio, Productio, Protractio, Propagatio, Pertractio, Prorogatio …   Thresor de la langue françoyse

  • prolongation — (pro lon ga sion ; en vers, de cinq syllabes) s. f. Action de prolonger, d accorder un surcroît de temps, de durée ; le résultat de cette action. •   Tout le royaume faisait des voeux pour la prolongation de ses jours, BOSSUET le Tellier..… …   Dictionnaire de la Langue Française d'Émile Littré