Feb. 6, 2016

What About Music Theory, Part I

Harmony is the grammar of music.  Just as a knowledge of grammar provides the building blocks to conveying meanings with language, a knowledge of Harmony provides the building blocks to conveying musical ideas.  It would be impossible for any serious organist or organ scholar to fully comprehend the wealth of organ music composed for the last 700 years without understanding the basics of Harmony, and understanding it throughly.

Knowledge is power.  Our knowledge of Harmony ... scales, modes [See blog, Modal Harmony], and the manner of building chords by means of triads in various inversions and textures, chord progressions, the principles of voice leading, the basic elements of form ... and from there, our knowledge of counterpoint ... how separate melodic lines sounding simultaneously may interact and work together ... all of this gives us the power to perform repertoire, hymns, and our own improvisations with understanding ... to compose and improvise our own music with purpose and direction.

When interest is developing and it becomes evident that the desire is there to delve more deeply into the art and science of what needs to be kept in mind when playing this or any other musical instrument, organ playing moves from being a hobby or activity used merely to fill someone's spare time to becoming a passion.  The mind will then begin seeking more nourishment, to drink more from this well, if it hasn't already, and to absorb it from a person the student admires, respects, and wants to be like.  This is where the concept of having a coach, a teacher, a mentor or series of mentors, and, perhaps even more importantly, understanding the difference between a friend and a mentor.

This is so important and bears repeating here:  A friend cares about you for the way you are.  A mentor cares about you too much to leave you the way you are.

Mentoring involves the clear and accurate communication of many critically important concepts, which necessarily imposes the need for learning as much as possible about the language of music.  Ideally then, every organ scholar, for their own self study away from the instrument, should have access to a comprehensive book or series of books on the various concepts having to do with tonal harmony and music theory.

This can be, and is, a fascinating study in its own right.  It serves a purpose, and that purpose is different for each individual.  At the same time it's important to remember that music theory does not live on paper.  Music is not a theory.  What scholars are calling music theory is simply a system for taking one's understanding of music to the next level by describing what makes tonal music work and hold together.  It's an educated look back at what happened throughout music history.  Music, as we all know, has undergone a gradual evolution throughout the centuries, and theory looks back at what's happened and tries to make sense of it.  It puts words and symbols to concepts that we've heard and understood all our life.  Studying it won't necessarily make us a better performer, although it could; but in the hands of a skilled player, it can be a powerful tool for self-improvement and understanding all the wonder of the art with which they're joining themselves.

At the same time we need to recognize that proficiency in analyzing a Bach chorale or some other passage of a musical score by means of Roman numerals and figured (thorough) basses as taught in Music Theory I gives us practice in conceptual learning but does not a musician make.  Most people today are still quite pleased to listen to cultural music of the swing era, notably that of the Glenn Miller band, whose enduring popularity first developed during some tough and turbulent years.  This music was performed by some of the best musicians in the business who still found a way to show people a good time during the tragic years of WWII and before.  The serious musician can learn anything by studying Glenn's music -- harmony, rhythm, syncopation, improvisation -- it's all there.  The interesting thing is, after Glenn finished high school at Fort Mason, Colorado in 1921, he enrolled in musical studies at Colorado University.  While he learned a good deal about arranging while he was there, he failed in those studies at the same time that he was playing trombone in a local band during the evening.  The thoughtful organ scholar will find more than one lesson in this. 

There are many roads to this conceptual learning and many references which may be consulted, all of which are good in their own ways.  For over 2 decades one of the leading texts for 2 year theory curriculum for music majors has been Tonal Harmony by Stefan Kostka and Dorothy Payne.  This book is in use in nearly 800 schools and deals with the practice of Western music from the 17th century to the present day.  It includes an overview of the fundamentals of music and opens with an exposition of the principles of voice leading.  From there it devotes itself to diatonic 7th chords, chromaticism with secondary functions, modulation, binary and ternary forms, mode mixture, the Neopolitan, augmented 6th chords, 9th chords, and altered dominants.   It moves on to discuss the developments and extension of tonal practice that occurred in late 19th century music and provides an extensive introduction to major 20th century (neo-style) practices.  It also provides brief self-tests (questions and drill material) as various concepts are presented to allow the reader to apply what they've just learned.  Now in its 7th edition, this is not an inexpensive book but a copy of an earlier edition, which still contains the essential core of the subject, occasionally can be found at a used book store for very nominal cost.

Knowing that Harmony is only one part of a well-rounded course in the theory of music, work in ear training, harmonic dictation, and keyboard harmony should be coordinated with the study of any Harmony textbook in order to develop a true ability of "thinking sound."  The book Progressive Harmony by Dr. Raymond Robinson F.A.G.O., revised edition (1962), first published in 1934, is a well integrated resource for organists and organ scholars interested in a logical and (as its name implies) progressive arrangement of this subject matter.  The author of this text was formerly professor of music theory and organ at Boston University College of Music and was among the most distinguished group of organists in America.  The basic elements of form have also been included in this book along with many original exercises.  If additional material about 20th century Harmony is also sought, Hull's Modern Harmony and Miller's New Harmonic Devices may also be consulted.

Another book helpful to organists is The Study Of Fugue by Alfred Mann.  The text of this work was first published by Rutgers University in 1958 and surveys the subject in great detail.  An additional older reference first published in 1902 is Counterpoint Applied in the Invention, Fugue, Canon, and Other Polyphonic Forms: An Exhaustive Treatise on the Structural and Formal Details of the Polyphonic Or Contrapuntal Forms of Music, For the Use of General and Special Students of Music by Percy Goetschius.  The polyphonic domain of musical composition as revealed in classic or standard writings is given systematic enumeration and explanation in these two books, and they're both still available on line in paperback reprint for reasonable cost. 

Harmony (1948 revised edition) by Walter Piston is another classic text that has been used for generations in many college music theory classes.  The author who was a Harvard professor and who won a Pulitzer prize for exceptional musical composition is systematic in this work and gives the reader all the knowledge he needs starting from zero, building it gradually to more sophisticated exercises.  You don't have to be super intelligent to understand what's in this book ... if you digest your way through it gradually and work on it systematically and with discipline you might even enjoy it.  It's interesting to read the reviews about this book.  Some people complain about the fact that the book is dry.  It makes others wonder what they expect from a harmony book.  Just because a book is "hard" for those who want a quick, easy read or confuses them in their haste to read it doesn't mean it's old-fashioned or a bad book.  Nothing about this book is dumbed down and, for many, this is the most complete and best Harmony text out there.  There's plenty of room for personal preference, and it's probably not fair to say one harmony book is better than another.  This book, however, is exceptional because there are people who have taught themselves Harmony from this book in high school and tested out of all theory at prestigious universities.  Basically they got the equivalent of an undergrad theory background from studying this text.  It's now in its 5th edition, but many of those same "Pistonites" seem to prefer the earlier 1948 revised edition.

For those who have the stamina to wade into them, the principal theoretical works of Dr.  Ebenezer Prout (1835-1909), which have become classics and have been translated into many languages since they first appeared in the late 19th century, might also be found helpful.  This gifted educator and musician (photo) served for many years as professor of Harmony and Composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London, professor at the Guildhall School of Music, and later, as professor of music at the University of Dublin, being awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree shortly thereafter.  He was for many years organist of the Union Chapel, Islington, and professor of piano at the Crystal Palace School of Art.  In 1863 he became one of the first 21 members of the Royal College of Organists.  Besides being a prolific writer on musical theory he was also the composer of a substantial body of concert, church, and chamber music.  As for writing for the organ, it's interesting that he advocated the works of J.S. Bach and Mendelssohn as being the best models for study.

Prout's series of academic textbooks are quite comprehensive, written in a clear style, loaded with information, and sequential, with chapters divided into numbered paragraphs which make step by step study easy to pick up where one has left off the previous day.  The print is small, they require the same concentraton demanded by all textbooks, and they're not a fast read, but nothing, repeat nothing, is left out.  Exercises are also included with certain chapters to provide the reader with the opportunity, if desired, to test what has been learned and to apply it.  His Harmony, its Theory and Practice (1889), Counterpoint, Strict and Free (1890), Double Counterpoint and Canon (1891), Fugue (1891), and Fugal Analysis (1892) provide a very solid foundation in points of musical theory, though theory and practice are so closely connected it's impossible to draw a hard line between them.  Two remaining works of his, Musical Form (1893) and its sequel Applied Forms (1895), are almost entirely practical, with points of theory hardly touched upon.  While Prout consulted numerous theoretical treatises in writing this series of texts, he took no statements or illustrations second hand.  In every single instance he went directly to the works of the great masters up to that time, both for his rules and his examples.  Hundreds upon hundreds of movements were carefully examined before a line of the text was written, a herculean task that occupied the whole of the author's spare time for several years.  The result of much of this arduous labor was condensed down, in some cases, to just a few pages.  Very few other series of books in history so encyclopedic in their scope have been so exhaustively researched before being written.  The fact that they were all written prior to the 20th century does not diminish their utility in the least.    

Most of Prout's theoretical treatises on music are out of print and available only as used copies or reproductions of the original works in the public domain in the United States and other countries.  But bringing these works back into print as part of a continuing commitment to the preservation of printed works worldwide is a reflection of how culturally important and valuable these books are.

(con't in Part II)