Sunday, October 9, 2016

A Harmony/Counterpoint Teacher/Student dialogue

by John Halle

This is an abridged version of a lengthier dialogue from John Halle's blog.

STUDENT: Why do I need to take this class?
TEACHER: It’s required.

STUDENT: Why is it required?
TEACHER: Because you need to know what we teach in it.

STUDENT: But we all know musicians who hardly know any music theory but who play their instruments beautifully, perform compellingly and have had hugely successful careers.
TEACHER: They’re the exception. Most musicians know enough harmony to tell the difference between wrong and right notes-at least in Bach and Beethoven.

STUDENT: You mean the difference between consonance and dissonance?
TEACHER: Not exactly. Lots of “right” notes are dissonances, and vice versa.

STUDENT: But can’t I learn the same thing from taking jazz harmony?
TEACHER: You can and you absolutely should. But there is a difference.

STUDENT: What’s that?
TEACHER: Most jazz and “popular” music harmony consists in treating chords as self-contained units, e.g. C7, F# maj 7, E7 #9, etc. within a lead sheet as opposed to functional harmonies within a fully composed score.

STUDENT: But baroque figured bass is something like a lead sheet, isn’t it?
TEACHER: Absolutely, but remember that pieces including figured bass notation specify not just the bass, but also the melody. That means that the piece is defined by two layers of counterpoint. In pop music, the bass tends to play a more functional role, supporting a melody which is the primary, if not exclusive focus of attention.

STUDENT: But that’s condescending. Lots of great bass lines in pop music are very melodic aren’t they?
TEACHER: You’re right. It was condescending. In fact, most academics believe that classical music is no “better” than any other style, or, as a distinguished musicologist puts it, “the canon of classical music is only one among many, and by no means the most culturally prestigious.”

STUDENT: But do you really believe that?
TEACHER: I’m not going to comment. I was just stating the fact that we are in the minority.

STUDENT: That’s sad.
TEACHER: Well maybe, but it’s possible to get over it.

TEACHER: By recognizing how classical music is unique. Mainly, unlike almost all other musical genres, it is more or less entirely notated. That means composers can work out intricate relationships which sometimes apparent only after many listenings.

STUDENT: But is the kind of complexity you’re talking about a good thing?
TEACHER: Yes and no. But I think we can first agree that complicatedness is a bad thing.

STUDENT: What’s the difference between complicatedness and complexity?
TEACHER: I’ll let you think about that. If you really want an answer you should take my Language and Music class.

STUDENT: How so?
TEACHER: You will learn about other languages which seem to be very complex.

STUDENT: You mean languages like Russian, Latin and Greek which have many different forms of nouns and verbs?
TEACHER: Yes, exactly. These are called “inflections” and as you may know, English is quite impoverished in terms of its inflectional morphology. For example, we only inflect our verbs in the 3rd person singular. (e.g. I, you, we, they walk. He/she walks.)

STUDENT: What? Aren’t we getting off track here?
TEACHER: Maybe a little but bear with me: if you take the class, you’ll discover that the Georgian language inflects for both the subject and the object resulting in a paradigm having (at least theoretically) thirty six forms for each tense.

STUDENT: Wow. Isn’t it amazing that kids are able to learn that language?
TEACHER: Yes. But the music you perform is similar.

STUDENT: How so?
TEACHER: For one thing, classical music uses a twelve note scale. Many (probably the majority) musical idioms are limited to the five note (pentatonic) scale. Others to the seven notes of the diatonic scale.

STUDENT: But most of our music uses a seven note scale. How is our music different from theirs?
TEACHER: Take the class.

STUDENT: How will that answer the question?
TEACHER: For one thing, you’ll see that while you’re right that the diatonic scale defines a basic foreground set of pitches, the availability of the other five notes is fundamental to the “common practice” both to create additional harmonies within a key (so called secondary or applied dominants) but also to allow for the possibility of modulation to other keys. Modulation is rare among the world’s musics-arguably it is unique to so-called classical music.

STUDENT: So is that why you brought up Georgian?
TEACHER: Yes, exactly. Common practice “classical” music is like Georgian in this respect and the limited morphology of English might be compared to “primitive” genres of music limited to a small set of pitches. Just as we need to do a certain amount of analytical work to show that English is anything but primitive, the same goes for numerous musical idioms formerly denigrated with the same term. The complexity of Beethoven symphonies and Bach fugues, in contrast, exists on the surface, and can be easily shown to anyone able to read music. That’s one of the reasons (maybe the main reason) why it makes sense to study it.

STUDENT: For the same reason that we still study classical languages, according to your argument.
TEACHER: Yes. And just as those formed the basis of education for many centuries, by analogy it might seem reasonable to take the common practice period as forming a similar function within musical education now. The reasons why students learned the “dead” languages Latin and Greek wasn’t just to develop awareness of “classical literature” which was foundational to the culture of the west, though that was surely one factor. The other factor was that one didn’t learn the language, so to speak, one learned those languages to learn something about language-i.e. the structures (visible and invisible) on which all languages are based.

STUDENT: So you’re saying that even if Bach, Beethoven and Brahms etc. are no longer central pillars of musical culture, there’s a reason to become fluent within their musical language. Right?
TEACHER: Yes, that’s essentially our position. By studying the grammar of languages whose underlying structure is relatively visible in its surface form, we are able to learn something about what it is that makes utterances in all languages cohere and make sense.

STUDENT: But all that seems overly intellectual. And it still makes me sad since you seem to be claiming that while our music might be unique, it’s not uniquely valuable. Isn’t that what you’re saying?
TEACHER: I think you have trapped me in a contradiction. But I think there is a way out of it.

STUDENT: What’s that?
TEACHER: That’s your job.

John Halle teaches music theory at the Bard Conservatory. A founding member of the Common Sense composers’ collective, his CD Outrages and Interludes was released last year on the Innova label.


  1. I like the dialogic conceit here, I really do. But this does not strike me as a productive or accurate vision of music theory pedagogy. I'm not sure why it has been posted to Musicology Now.

  2. I've posted a response on my own blog, Not Another Music History Cliché!: "What is unique about classical music?"

  3. Posts like these serve only to alienate people interested in what we do. This smug, condescending, elitist attitude encapsulates a large part of what is driving people away from musicology and the AMS in particular.

  4. "Most jazz and “popular” music harmony consists in treating chords as self-contained units, e.g. C7, F# maj 7, E7 #9, etc. within a lead sheet as opposed to functional harmonies within a fully composed score."

    You could have made a very useful comparison here, namely that popular music harmony and jazz harmony have a different, but related, functional language to classical music, and that studying the functional harmony of classical music helps us to understand the similarities and deviations in pop music theory. There is, in fact, quite a bit of work that has been done to show large-scale harmonic relationships in pop music theory (Biamonte, Nobile, Osborn, Doll, etc. etc. etc.). Why gloss over this with the generalization that "most" harmonies consist in treating chords as self-contained units, which, whether intentionally or not, certainly carries an air of condescension?

  5. Jazz harmony most certainly does use functional harmony. It has tonic/dominant relationships, leading tones, and sequences like cycles of fifths to guide the ear toward a tonal center. That is the case with the underlying song forms that set parameters and possibilities for jazz solos. It is also true of the melodic variations jazz improvisers build over those forms. The soloist is free to affirm, embellish, elide, or ignore cadential expectations. But that is also true of Corelli, Mozart, and Brahms in their fashion. I say this in support of your greater purpose, which is to argue for the need to learn or use traditional harmony and theory, and not to oppose it.