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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


WHY CAN'T MUSIC STUDENTS DO HARMONY ? by Arthur Butterworth

One of the perplexing, yet seemingly universal things about the academic study of music is that so many students -- probably even the very large majority - simply cannot "do" harmony, No matter what age group, whether it be at GCSE, "A" Level, a performing diploma, or even the more rigorous demands of a degree; it seems that being required to sit an examination in harmony, or offer a modest portfolio of their own original compositions, is the most daunting aspect of the requirements. Most reasonably intelligent people can, with guidance and patient instruction, write a passable essay or dissertation, or learn to play an instrument well enough to be able to perform creditably in public, but the manipulation of harmony seems to be an elusive and tantalising thing. Has it always been like this?

The musings on the problem offered here, do not claim to offer a final, indisputable answer; teachers, lecturers and others who have experienced academic study in music might disagree completely with what follows.

Probably there are a variety of equally plausible reasons; a few of them could be considered; The earliest organised music must have been very simple, and by our later civilised standard even crude; the monody of medieval music and the very earliest manifestations of harmony - "organum" - in which the parallelism of voices simultaneously sounded a fourth or fifth apart, must have been regarded as the norm. The early modes too, must have been very simple for the human ear to comprehend, although eventually giving way to the diatonic music - major and minor keys - that is now a universal perception, even in the minds and the inner ear of people who do not claim to be musical. The most likely reason for this and the sensible recognition of a modal or diatonic melody, or sequence of musical sounds, is primarily concerned with the very essence - the mathematical logic - of the phenomenon of sound itself. Acousticians lucidly explain how this comes about, that immutable nature of the the harmonic series. No matter how succeeding centuries of musical evolution, changes in style or fashion: from plainsong, to the early classics, romanticism, nationalism, twentieth-century avant-garde, pop culture, minimalism, orientalism, or whatever else, one feature remains: how sound itself actually works, the unchangeable law of the harmonic series. The very briefest (and oversimplified) exposition of this is merely to state that sound, like light, is comprised of waves or pulses, which exist in a simple mathematical relationship to each other.

Just as light is made up of different, but closely-related colours of the spectrum, so a sound, of whatever arbitrarily chosen pitch, is made up of other pitches closely allied to it in an unchangeable mathematical relationship. This is the very foundation of the human ear's perception of harmony, so that no matter how much fashion or style may change over the centuries, the basic relationship of one pitch to another is something we cannot alter, no more than we can change the colours of the spectrum. Whichever culture human beings belong to: the most sophisticated western European, Oriental, Eskimo, Aboriginal, African, Indian or whatever, the most fundamentally basic intervals: octave, fifth, fourth (and to a decreasing extent major and minor thirds), are the significant sounds we intuitively recognise most of all.

People who claim to be, in their own words, "tone deaf", can usually respond to these basic harmonies in some way. The most casual humming by simple, unaffected peasants from relatively uncultured or untutored backgrounds, who have an ability to hum, sing, or whistle some sort of tune; either repeated from previous casual hearing, or made up out of their own heads. Late night, half-drunken merry-making can call forth maudlin sentimental (or sometimes aggressive) 'singing'. This is not infrequently done in a basic, instinctive vocalising, casual barber-shop harmony seems to be of this kind. Overhearing such singing, even allowing for poor, untrained vocal effort, untunefulness or lack of accuracy in good pitch and intonation does not, however, generally mean lack of an identifiable rightness of harmony. It may sound lugubrious, maudlin or of poor quality, but almost always, such spontaneous singing gives the impression that the singers are at least intending what we as musicians recognise as the "right" notes. This suggests that there is a universally instinctive awareness of the basic nature of harmony. The problem for the serious music student is one of being able to codify it: to rationalise it into written notation.

Music in earlier times primarily meant singing, so that a person could produce the sounds from within himself or herself; there was no reliance on artificial outside assistance as provided by a musical instrument. So, the earliest written or codified symbols for music were essentially related to what the human voice could do, and thus by definition, what the inner ear could imagine. It seems likely then, that an earlier ability to manipulate or write down symbols for harmony were originally connected with what the inner ear, assisted by the, voice itself, could conceive in the imagination. Since the art and science' of harmony must inevitably have been of fairly slow evolution, it was probably not so difficult for musicians to get used to such a written symbolism for sounds: the imagination of which in the inner ear, could readily be verified by singing them. At one time it used to be a maxim that composers should be able to compose "in the head" without the aid of an instrument. It is almost certain that the great composers of classical times were able to do this unquestionably. The language of written notation was formulated and stabilised, a musician's instincts so firmly and securely based, that even the most humble could compose and be assured of conceiving in his or her own head the "right" harmony notes to go with the melody.

Such a facility has not, of course, been lost even in modern times. Many composer of popular music have the gift of getting their harmony right, of choosing the chords that seem - by general consent - to be the the most clinching ones in any particular musical context. Many such 'natural' musicians, often totally ignorant of being able to read from printed music, are able to sit down at a piano and play with disarming and innocent simplicity, a popular tune with its correct harmony in a way that so maddeningly seems to elude those who have been formally taught music. It would be interesting and most enlightening to discover the secret of how such innate, but untutored musicians possess this gift, but our problem is rather the opposite one: to find out why those who have been trained to read music find it so difficult to "do" harmony, not just written work, but that intuitive gift for extemporisation at the keyboard too.

There are a variety of explanations for the tantalisingly elusive nature of this ability to manipulate written harmony effectively. It is all very well being able to play an instrument, but the most basic instinct for musical expression is still the human voice. All young children express themselves not only in baby-talk but - especially when they are happy and contented - in baby-crooning or singing. This instinct demonstrates over and over again, in all cultures, the universality of the phenomenon of the harmonic series: its prime intervals - octave, fifth, fourth and thirds. The simplest and most universally appealing of all music demonstrates this in every kind of folk music and the simplest of melody and harmony. Even so-called unmusical people can respond to music of this nature; hence the appeal of popular music throughout every age and culture. The great corpus of art music, baroque, classical, and romantic, was based an the fundamental- -nature of the simplest harmony. It was probably not until the later experiments and evolution of harmony towards the end of the nineteenth century, that such fundamentals seemed to be seriously challenged. In earlier times there was nothing very special about being a composer; most musicians could contrive music for their own singing or performance; only much later did being a composer take on the "arty" rarefied speciality that it now possesses. However, musicians with an imaginative gift for creating original ideas in sound began to specialise and be set apart and recognised for this particular ability, so becoming regarded primarily as composers rather than performers of whatever kind. Composers, thus being endowed with gifts of creativity ever sought to discover new and original ways of using and manipulating harmony (and of course rhythms too, but that is another, though not unconnected part of the story). Thus, in becoming specialists in exploring new concepts they probably began, to some extent at least, to leave other musicians, the performers, a little behind, so that it has always been a case of the interpreters (the performers) generally being at one step behind in matters of musical evolution. This is, of course, a too-facile generalisation for there have been performers throughout musical history who must be regarded as innovators and explorers just as much as composers. However, it is with this special regard to the particular problem that so many practising musicians find in coming to terms with a perception of harmonic usage that is the - admittedly rather narrow - concern here.

So long as music used a common language of harmony, most musicians could apply it; and as has been remarked, it was always assumed that composing could be done without the aid of any instrument to 'find the notes' as it were. It was once thought somehow to be cheating if a composer could not envisage the sounds he wanted without the help of the piano to find them. However, with the explosion of chromaticism towards the end of the nineteenth century, it became evident that the subtle manipulation and contriving of new and colourful harmonies could not always be done in the imagination alone. Early in the 1900's, Vaughan Williams, having gone to study for a short period in Paris, was asked by Ravel how he managed in his modest attic studio:... "to invent 'new harmonies' without the aid of piano?"... The implication being that a composer in modern times could not just rely on a simple diatonic or modal system of harmonic language that could be conceived in the inner-ear alone. Probably most innovative twentieth century composers, and Stravinsky was one who readily admitted it, took to 'inventing' new harmonies at the piano rather than just sitting at his desk. Of course, musical composition is not just a matter of being able to contrive appropriate harmony; it requires powers of the intellect to be able to design logical structures as well as many other creative gifts too, but here the concern is simply one of considering some of the basic problems of the usages of harmony, not so much as concerns the obviously gifted potential composer, but the student who is required to exhibit some basic facility and understanding of how to manipulate it.

Text-books on harmony have always tried to analyse the methods of combining musical sounds in a way satisfying to the ear. There is nothing wrong with these laudable attempts to explain how harmony works. However, it perhaps ought to be realised that there are two fundamentally different attitudes to what might be termed the way harmony operates. The so-called "rules" of harmony are man-made, and depend absolutely on the prevailing fashion. The organum of medieval times - those bare open fifths - now sounds incredibly crude to present-day listeners (unless he or she is a specialist devotee of that period of musical history); modal music, a Bach chorale or Haydn minuet can sound unappealing to someone whose only response is to pop music or aspects of the very avant garde. Such "rules" from any given period of musical taste or fashion change with the passage of time. Some of the harmonic usages of former times no longer demand strict observance, but if we are to re-create (such as for the purpose of examinations when a student is required to demonstrate that he or she understands a particular style - a Bach fugue, a Mozart quartet, a Schubert song, for example), it is essential that the features of whatever style is aimed at should be strictly preserved. So, for instance, parallel 5ths or doubled-major thirds sound incongruous in exercises that claim to be in the style of the classical period, but they might sound exactly and stylistically correct in Debussy or Hindemith. However, although such "rules" are man-made and subject to evolution and quite drastic change as time goes by, the fundamental "laws" (rather than the "rules") of harmony can never be altered, since these depend, as it has already been pointed out, on the immutable nature of the phenomenon of sound itself. Whether writing parallel fifths, or the use of second inversion chords is fashionable or not at any given period is neither here nor there; what does matter is the unalterable significance basic sounds - intervals - have for the human ear: an octave, a fifth, or whatever other interval one cares to think about ever_retains its special emotional meaning to our sense of hearing. Even in the intricate harmonic systems of oriental music, sometimes encompassing the use of quarter tones, that can seem so strange to western ears, the most basic intervals: octaves and fifths, fourths, major and minor thirds, remain the basic building blocks of harmony.

What then is the nature of most students' present-day problem in dealing with the manipulation of - for the want of a better and far more accurate word - "ordinary" harmony, as perceived by western culture?

Acknowledging that, since about the end of the nineteenth century and the evolution of subtle chromatic harmonies that so often seem to defy straightfoward analysis, what is it that seems to elude many musicians from perceiving correct harmonic procedures in their attempts to write musical exercises? "Correct" itself perhaps needs some definition: it surely means - to most listeners - harmony that sound convincing and just right. It is possible of course, for there to be more than one way of harmonising any given melody; but so many attempts at written harmony seem, for a variety of not-easily-defined reasons, to sound wrong; ungainly, crude, unattractive, banal, naive. When asked why some particularly ineffective harmony has been written down, a student's frequent and disarming excuse is that he.. ."intended it that way".. .But this an all too disingenuous answer. They could say, of course, that: "nothing is actually wrong in music if that is how its creator intended it". But this is where so much modern creativity falls down; far too often this is a lame excuse, the composer not realising that his or her musical 'message' is not being perceived by the listener as he thinks it is; hence so much new music is rejected. Of course, the genuinely accomplished composer knows what he is doing, takes liberties knowingly, but the student often makes a pretence of being able to do this without knowing that his technique is faulty. Text books are often to blame for this pseudo-artistic approach to musical language: they teach processes of harmonic analysis that, while perhaps being all right in principle, are no substitute for an individual's creative imagination: that treasured ability to hear inwardly the harmonies one wishes to create. Being given some arbitrary rule-of-thumb, in order to try to remember which chord 'can' or 'ought' to follow another is like one of those painting kits for amateurs, where an outline of shapes is printed on a canvas, each shape being numbered, and to which the student painter is merely instructed which numbered colour is to be used to fill in each numbered blank shape.

Harmony cannot be done in this artificial manner: it has to be perceived in the head; then one does not need to think of "rules" for the instinct guides the mind un-erringly to choose the clinching, appropriate and just-right chord or its inversion, that convinces and compels the listener's appreciation of the musical message.

How to achieve this? There is no quick and easy answer. A crash-course in harmony is of little help. What is required is long and patient ear-training so that the mind can begin to connect two senses: sight and sound. The inner ear needs to be able to pass on to the inner-eye what the sound should look like in written symbols on music paper. Conversely, the eye (in sight-reading, without the aid of an instrument, to find the pitch of the written note) needs, as it were to be able to hear the written symbol as sound: "To hear with the eye and see with the ear", as Schumann is reputed to have remarked. This is the essence of an ability to write convincing harmony. Useful as it may be in theorising about the nature of harmony, it is better to put aside the text book, with its prosaic labelling of such things as "Chord I" "Chord VIIb", "the added 6th", "Neapolitan 6th", (as if remembering a catalogue of such processes will guarantee a facility in harmonic usage) and train the mind to make that essential inner connection between the senses of sound and sight. Only in this way can one write convincing harmonies and really begin to understand the art of musical composition.

September 2000


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