Feb. 6, 2016

What About Music Theory, Part I

The job of theory is mainly to give the new organist and students of music something to "hang their hats on," something which provides a semblance of structure that entails a common language -- a foreign one begging to be learned.  It's a "semblance of structure" because there are endless possibilities when it comes to analysing music.  Harmony, in this sense, can be considered 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 for conveying musical ideas.  A working knowledge of tonal Harmony ... i.e., 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 greater understanding and insight and to compose and improvise our own music with better purpose and direction.

Depending upon how it's taught to us, music theory can be either an interesting step-by-step pursuit or a bewildering tour through a foreign land which has us, in the next sentence, not knowing what was just said or how to get our bearings.  The purpose it serves is different for each individual.  It's a fact that there are talented and inspired young musicians in this world who are skilled at sight-reading, hymn playing, improvisation, and have honed their technique to where they can already play on the level of a senior majoring in Organ in college, but who, if they were enrolled at a university, could not manage to pass their freshman Music Theory classes.  Sadly, it wouldn't matter how good an organist they were if they didn't understand the terminology, couldn't work the exercises in their textbook, and couldn't provide correct and complete answers to test questions.  It's also a fact that at least one emerging contemporary composer who has already written a number of solidly-crafted 4-voice Organ fugues in triple and quadruple counterpoint, if enrolled in a college class on Fugue, would NEVER pass.  Having already been to the center of the art he would find himself disagreeing at times with the so-called "rules" and misinformation being taught as gospel, and thus, even though he may be right, it would be necessary for him to keep his knowledge to himself or risk speaking up for the truth, rebelling against the professor and department, and earning a failing grade.

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 describing what makes tonal music work and hold together -- basically an analytical look back at what happened throughout the history of Western music.  This music, as we all know, has undergone a gradual evolution throughout the centuries, and theory simply looks back at what's happened and tries to make sense of it.  It tries to put 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 useful tool for self-improvement and understanding all the wonder that music is.

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 classes give us practice in conceptual learning but do NOT a musician make.  Many music-lovers today are still quite pleased to listen to cultural music of, for example, the swing era, notably that of the Miller band whose enduring popularity has never waned in 80 years.  This music was performed by some of the finest musicians in the business at the time who, while they were also trying to make a living for themselves, still found a way to show people a good time during the tragic years of WWII and before.  The serious musician can learn very much by studying how Glenn's orchestra performed its arrangements.  Harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, syncopation, improvisation, the Miller "reed sound" (saxophone chorus with clarinet on top), muted brass solos, vocal solos, repartee between saxophones, brass, and vocal chorus, take your pick, 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, but, while he learned a good deal there about arranging, he failed his classes, mostly because at the same time he was playing trombone in a local band during evenings.  The thoughtful new organist 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 have their strong points.  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 might 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 by Walter Piston, now in its 5th edition, also has been used for generations in many college music theory classes.  The author, while was a Harvard professor of music and was awarded a Pulitzer prize for exceptional musical composition, was a bit off-base as a composer in that 1) Harmony and our view of it changes over time, and, 2) as every composer knows, the advanced student of music eventually synthesizes an internal understanding of Western music which in turn finds expression, through composers, in the form of entirely new interpretations of what Western music is, what it's inherent possibilities are, the manner in which its underlying mechanics can be manipulated and developed, and the manner in which the relationship between harmony and acoustics can be altered in order to produce an entirely new palate of color.  Piston's theory of secondary dominants, for example, was developed as a teaching tool in the beginning, but what was intending as a teaching tool became an all-encompassing, codified, written-in-stone understanding of Western music based solely upon one person's (his) methods.

Harmony belongs to composers and potential composers, not analysts, and, in the world of composition, less is more.  Using terms like "double appogiatura" is to clutter the tools of composition.  For the composer, there is no such thing.  There is only a box of notes which may be assembled in any which-way to the composer's content.  The composer may use a whole bunch of these notes to build chords and then assemble these chords into a piece of music, the way one fits together a jig-saw puzzle, but although the composers (or anyone else who puts together a jigsaw puzzle) notices recurring patterns in the pieces, the composer knows that giving those patterns names is a fool's errand, because they're a secondary matter which is not directly related to the making of music.  When 100 people assemble the same complicated puzzle we only know that the result is the same.  From the result we have absolutely no idea of the individual strategies that people used to put that puzzle together.  

It's therefore interesting to read the reviews about Piston's Harmony.  Some complain about the book being too dry or difficult.  It's true that nothing about this book is "dumbed down," but it's probably not fair to say that one Harmony book is better than another.  Dry or not, the fact is, there are people who have taught themselves Harmony from this book in high school and tested out of all theory classes at prestigious universities.  Many of these same "Pistonites" who got the equivalent of an undergrad theory background from studying this book seem to prefer the earlier 1948 revised edition.

"Dumbing down" has become a glaring problem with the way our young people are educated and concerns far more than music.  We also find it in the sciences, in mathematics, and what passes for "grammar" these days, to put a name to just a few disciplines.  There didn't used to be this "pass the explanation off until later" disease that has infected modern schooling but, once it had crept in, this mental laziness became worse to the point that often the explanation simply was never forthcoming, that the "passing off" ended up being done past the point of graduation.  Sometimes in both lesson pieces to play and in the study of theory the musical examples were either "dumbed down" for the student or the theory contained only some components "in order not to confuse."  This created a curious phenomenon where the invisible structures that the ear sensed ought to be there weren't, and it left the student with a feeling that the either the musical explanation was made to fit with the theory or the "dumbed down" version no longer sounded whole -- a perfect example of what has become broken in the study of Harmony.   

All analysis is an ATTEMPT to explain why things work (or are effective) that already work perfectly.  The problem is that analysis always plays "catch-up."  What it is that we call Harmony already existed when people began to attempt to describe what it was; it existed before people tried to explain it in the first place.

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 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 solid foundation in points of 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 great composers.

At the same time, when one wants an exhaustive list of obscureEbenezer Prout, whose books are full of just that sort of stuff.  For example, in his book on Fugue, he notes that while there are limitations as to the note of the scale on which a fugue subject should end, there are none as to that on which it should begin.  This is important to understand because it agrees with the statement of organist J.P. Kirnberger, who studied composition in Leipzig with Sebastian Bach, who is on record for stating that his master Bach "believed that everything [in the realm of tonal harmony in which he himself moved and worked] should be possible and would never hear of anything being not feasible" [See blog, Getting Started With Writing, Part XXXIII].   Most of Prout's books 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)