Toughts on Teaching Harmony

This week, I’ve been focusing on the teaching-of-harmony portion of my lit review. This means that I’ve thumbed thru textbooks from 1873 to 2011 and read articles and books on the state of Music Theory Pedagogy from 1980 and later. This is not a full draft of this portion of my Prospectus, but it is some thoughts about what I’ve read this week, which will eventually go into my full lit review. Much of this week’s reading was looking for functional concepts in historical text books.

(I am finding more and more that Functional Analysis fits in well with a Schenkerian view point of music and harmony, especially with the ability to have multiple layers or levels.)

Not surprisingly, the textbooks that start shifting away from a purely voice-leading-rules approach with numerous figured-bass part-writing exercises are mostly post-Schenkerian, with obvious Schenkerian influence and graphs in Allen Forte’s textbook, as well as the Aldwell/Schachter text. Two current texts that help focus on functionality by using a phrase-model of T-P-D-T are Laitz and Clendinning/Marvin.

Schönberg’s Structural Functions of Harmony, which, while it uses the word “function” in the title is not primarily functionally based, but does use a more functional definition of tonality and has a number of Tonnetz-type diagrams.

The oldest text I have found is a 1873 translation of the 8th Edition Ernst Richter’s Manual of Harmony. While this book appears before the codification of the term function in terms of music and harmony, the approach to harmony has primary and secondary importances of triads, in addition to stressing the tendency of the Leading Tone. The Tonic, Subdominant, and Dominant are described as independent chords in a quasi-dualist manner. (The preface names Hauptmann as a reference on the science of Harmony.) Elsewhere the ii and IV chords are shown to have similar placement in phrase/cadence structures. Overall, the book is mostly voice leading rules, but the sequence of concepts positions it well as a predecessor.

Another find was a book called Harmony Simplified from 1909, which has no relation to Riemann’s book of the same name. There are definitions of melodic scale-degree characters, which resemble functions but much more whimsically, the I IV and V chords are set up as more important, and the viiº is described as the V7 without the root. It is possible that the author (Francis L. York) knew of Riemann’s work, but the introduction states that “This work, in its inception, appeared in 1895 in serial form in one of the musical periodicals,” and Riemann’s Vereinfachte Harmonielehre was published in 1896, so it seems unlikely.

Another functional idea, stressing the Dominant as key defining, is present in Walter Piston’s 1941 Harmony: “The greatest strength of tonality in harmonic progressions involving only triads lies in those progressions which combine dominant harmony with harmony form the subdominant side (including supertonic as partaking of both). Presence of the tonic chord itself is not necessary to the establishment of a key. More important is the dominant.”

Bemoaning the state of current teaching books and standards seems to be a perennial pastime. Many authors state in their preface the dismal state of their students’ knowledge proclaim their dedication to practical applicability. More recent pedagogical criticisms discourage the use of part writing exercises and encourage the use of excerpted music. The concept of separating Harmony from Voice Leading (while showing their interdependence) is also present in multiple articles. (A specific argument against four-voice part writing is found at I still believe that Functional Analysis makes understanding harmony easier, while not precluding the study of voice leading, and I am working on adaptations to apply FA to voice leading.

One response to “Toughts on Teaching Harmony”

  1. Super cool! I’m stoked to read and see more!!

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