Two musical theories of Sven E. Svensson reconsidered: ‘tension of fifths’ and ‘intervallic pulse’


Sven E. Svensson (1899–1960) was a highly original music theorist in the first half of the twentieth century, at the time when musicology was being consolidated as a modern academic discipline in Sweden at Uppsala University. This study revisits two of Svensson’s so-called universal theories of tonal music: ‘tension of fifths’ and ‘intervallic pulse’. The former is rooted in the Riemannian notion of harmonic dualism and purports that linear melodic progression can be understood (and perceived) as a balance between cumulative kinetic tension in sharpwards and flatwards directions. The latter theory tries to ascertain empirically that rhythmic pulse and interval distance are indeed of one and the same substance, by explaining fractions of intervals as connected to the pulse beats of the concomitant numbers against each other on a microlevel of rhythm. While some of Svensson’s premises and argumentation may certainly be criticised, other aspects of his visionary reasoning could offer serious elucidation to modern theories of tonal music. In some respects, Svensson’s calculations and speculative hypotheses may in fact today be proven right in a way that was not possible within his own lifetime, due to a lack of technology.  


Sven E. Svensson; music theory; Swedish musicology; Hugo Riemann; dualism; Universal-theorie; tension of fifths; intervallic pulse.



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