Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Best, Little-Known Harmony Books

In his preface to Traditional Harmony, Paul Hindemith wrote, “No one is really satisfied with what he learned long ago in his harmony study, which in general has so pitifully little influence on the practical musical accomplishments that have to be learned in the early years.  So one buys the latest harmony book, as one has bought others before it, in order finally to make up for what one has missed[.]”  In my own teaching experience, I tend to agree with Hindemith’s observation.  I have witnessed competent student performers, including pianists who play thousands of chord progressions from the classical canon daily, experience puzzling difficulty when asked to harmonize chorales, or improvise classical chord progressions.  Though there are many reasons for harmonic deficiencies--I need not name them--harmonic perception is essential for supreme musicianship.  The books I’m about to recommend are clear, concise guides to “tradtional” harmony.  Most of them are not used in classroom settings today; however, they are written by experts, and actual composers, who made use of the same harmonic materials and principles discussed within their pages throughout their lives.  Because of the age of these texts, Roman numerals used to label chords are all capitalized, but this should not confuse students with adequate knowledge of major and minor scales.  Without further ado, here are some of the best, little-known harmony books:

1. Applied Harmony by George A. Wedge
American organist George A. Wedge provides a clear, methodical guide to harmony, beginning with the basics.  Exercises are progressive in nature, and even give students the opportunity to practice instrumental harmonization in more than four parts.  (Many basic harmony books limit writing to four parts, rarely discussing scoring for polyphonic instruments like the piano.)  Wedge’s second volume, Applied Harmony Book II: Chromatic Harmony, continues beyond diatonicism, offering insightful and immediately useful techniques for writing in a chromatic, tonal idiom.

2. Harmonic Practice by Roger Sessions
This text consists mostly of exercises composed to introduce students to harmonic principles one step at a time.  Sessions’ own commentary, words from a capable composer, is amusing and encouraging from the start.  No matter what a student’s level of experince with harmony, this book will fill in any theoretical gaps.  I am convinced that any student who works through this book entirely will gain a profound, intimate knowledge of harmony.   

3. Guide to the Practical Study of Harmony 
     by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky
Written by a master composer and harmonist, this book is a gem.  Well-organized with abundant examples, the text begins with the basics, progressing to more advanced techniques.  Sequences, modulation, free voice-leading, melodic harmonization, “free” prelude writing, and harmonic deviations are covered in this informative, historic find.  

4. Practical Manual of Harmony by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Another book by a master composer, the text is abundant with harmonic examples and useful tips.  Topics of the last few chapters introduce chorale harmonization, enharmonic modulation, and sudden modulation.  The back also contains exercises for use with material in corresponding chapters.  With the curious mentioning of the “harmonic major mode” on pages 5 and 6, this book is another invaluable find for  music theory and history lovers.

5. Figured Harmony at the Keyboard by Reginald Owen Morris
While it is often assumed that the focus of figured harmony courses is on learning to realize figured bass at a keyboard instrument, such knowledge of figured bass, acquired by the hands in conjunction with the head, enables students to digest harmonic concepts more rapidly.  Realizing figured bass is, essentially, harmonization in action, and this book by composer R. O. Morris introduces key harmonic concepts and techniques immediately applicable to composition, improvisation, and completing harmony exercises in other books.  While I am convinced great benefit is derived from playing through this book, it can also be worked through, with staff paper in hand, like a traditional harmony text.  

6. Continuo Playing According to Handel: His Figured Bass Exercises 
     edited by David Ledbetter
The great composer’s figured bass exercises introduce students to harmonic concepts Handel, himself, deemed exceptionally important.  The exercises, including those in fugue, aim to instruct students about composition, too.  Filled with musical wisdom, and immediately applicable, this book is a “must-have” harmonic resource for all serious composers and performers.  Mentioning that it is a text with great historic value, too, is obvious.

With the abundance of harmony books available today, give the six above some serious atention.  If there is a gap in your harmonic training, one of them is sure to uncover and remedy it!