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General Principles of Harmony

by Alan Belkin (2003) alanbelkinmusic@gmail.com alanbelkinmusic.com


Of all musical disciplines, harmony is probably the most written about. Textbooks abound, from the summary to the encyclopedic. Why add to the existing plethora of resources? While we will survey some of this material below, one thing is lacking in all of them: None convincingly connects traditional harmony to contemporary practice.


INTERFERENCE - 2009 -Richard Merrick


The greatest barrier in either understanding or making music must be the monumental task of learning all the rules.

Everyone seems to have a theory and some set of rules to explain how music works ̶from Pythagoras … Schoenberg, who devised a twelve-tone compositional system that broke every rule he had ever learned.

to Arnold


Given the preponderance of rules and exceptions to the rules (and exceptions to the exceptions!), we still find ourselves today with absolutely no unifying model for music that adequately explains historical usage or perception. No philosophy, no grand theory, no overarching logic to explain all the variations. Just rules. You told simply that if you learn all the rules and practice, you might someday understand how music works.

A Geometry of Music Harmony and Counterpoint in the Extended Common Practice DMITRI TYMOCZKO 2011 by Oxford University Press, Inc. (p.xviii Introduction) But despite this new freedom, tonality remains poorly understood. We lack even the most rudimentary sense of the musical ingredients that contribute to the sense of “tonalness.” The chromatic music of the late nineteenth century continues to be shrouded in mystery. We have no systematic vocabulary for discussing Debussy’s early 20th-century music or its relation to subsequent styles.

Dutch Journal of Music Theory, volume 17, number 2 (2012)

Chameleonic Qualities of Chromaticism:

Combining Tonal and Atonal Elements in Contemporary Compositions Jan Ezendam (Jan Ezendam is a composer, conductor, music theorist and lecturer at the Maastricht Academy of Music. Since 2006 he has been a board member of the Dutch-Flemish Society for Music Theory.)


As a logical consequence of the infinite abundance available within contemporary twenty-first century composed music, there is a growing demand for a clearly structured methodical approach of analysis of these works. Such an approach could be beneficial for performance practice, compositional applications, and education. Interpreters of contemporary music would need such a method of analysis to tackle vital issues in matters of interpretation and develop the ability to recognize and retrace contrastive harmonic forces.



Transforming Music Study from its Foundations:

A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of Music Majors Report of the Task Force on

the Undergraduate Music Major November 2014 - The College Music Society


An extraordinary opportunity awaits individuals and institutions that are commited to transforming music study from its creativity-deficient, diversity, ethnocentric, hegemonic orientation toward rendering it as a force for creativity, diversity, integration, and transformation in a musical world, and a society, in urgent need of such change. Though the rationale may be obvious for this kind of reform in light of global of the global nature of today's musical and societal landscapes, a strong case may also be made that European classical music - the custodian of which have typically resisted this thinking - has everything to gain from such reform. Key to the TFUMM's proposed vision is the restoring of a creative template that prevailed in the Europian tradition into the mid-nineteenth century, and which has profound ramifications for twenty-first-century multicultural, transcultural navigation.



(Text originally submitted as a contribution to the Festschrift for CORIÚN AHARONIÁN AND GRACIELA PARASKEVAÍDIS, November-December 2011, with slight changes in April 2012 and more substantial revision in February 2013) Philip Tagg


I see this text as part of those efforts in that it addresses fundamental problems of logic and democracy in the denotation of musical structure. My own awareness of those problems stems from forty years of work as a ‘musicologist of the popular’. Back in the 1970s I was certainly aware of incongruities when trying to apply the terminology of conventional music theory to popular music, but it was not until the 1990s that I started to fully

realise the extent to which that terminology can be both inadequate and deceptive.


The Urgent Reform of Music Theory (Ref.05) (Contribution to Festschrift for Jean-Jacques Nattiez, September 2015) by Philip Tagg (JJN70yrs)


The main reason for my insistence on reform in this area of study is that from 1971 until 2009 I taught the history and analysis of popular music (including music for moving images), and that I could not explain the workings of such musics using solely the concepts of the music theory I had been taught. Since retiring in 2010, I’ve had time to reflect on, and become increasingly troubled by, the inability or reluctance of conventional music theory to address these issues.


Moreover, if musics other than those in the euroclassical and classical jazz traditions remain uncodified, the terminology of conventional euroclassical music theory will stay unchallenged and continue to marginalise, trivialise or falsify any type of music exhibiting important traits for which that theory has either flawed concepts or no concepts at all. Not only would such neglect prolong the undemocratic disrespect and ethnocentric ignorance it seems to show towards so many musics used by a majority of the world’s population; it would also, as argued earlier, obstruct efforts to understand what made the musical tradition on which it based that same terminology so influential and unique.

Semiotics — the Missing Link between Music and the Rest of Human Knowledge

by Philip Tagg (Kaunas-2015)


Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that music theory, as it is still widely taught, is in need of terminological

reform that opens up to all sorts of music and that such reform goes hand in hand with the interdisciplinary and democratic process requested by many of those I met when speaking about this topic.


I think it’s high time for ‘music theory’ to grow up and to embrace social and musical reallities in the real lives of real people. (Philip Tagg is currently Visiting Professor of Music at Leeds Beckett University and the University of Salford)



Towards a Global Music Theory (Ref.07)

Practical concepts and Methods for the analysis of Music across human cultures Mark hijleh (Professor of music at Houghton College, New York, USA)

2012 - Ashgate e-Book

Houghton College, New York, USA


In the end, a global music theory should be useful for understanding the things associated with real music-making by real human beings in the actual musical world in which we live. It ought to consist of a few simple concepts, rooted in fundamental human perceptual and conceptual experience, that can at the same time allow for expanded exploration of implications at a variety of deeper levels and in a variety of cultural contexts. And it must of course be applicable to a wide range of musics, both in and out of the Western tradition, especially musics that reflect the global hybridity now at the forefront of cultural development. in short, for the sake of the global musicianship

imperative, a twenty-first-century music theory needs to move towards being both more conceptually accessible and more globally and experientially relevant.


Yet the “global musicianship dilemma” also compels us to find a more manageable way to operate effectively in such a world. That is, a global music theory cannot simply be an endless expansion of known particularities. Rather, it must capture in a few simple concepts the essence of musical synthesis while also being pertinent to many specific musics. The most elegant theories pertaining to any comprehensible element of human existence tend toward such simplicity while having infinitely profound implications.

from: https://societymusictheory.org/peer_learning_program Peer Learning Program (PLP)

2015 Workshops

Daniel Harrison (Yale University): Analytical Tools and Approaches to Contemporary Tonal Music The persistence of tonal composition after common-practice norms relaxed in the early 20th century is as remarkable as the resulting falloff in analytic power suffered by such strong tonal theories as Schenker’s and Riemann’s. Despite ambitious work by Salzer (for Schenker) and Hermann Erpf (for Riemann), as well as innovative theorizing by composers as diverse as Paul Hindemith and Dmitri Tymoczko, tonal composition during the last century has been the subject of numerous individualized analyses, but of no lasting general theory of wide applicability. Extraordinary stylistic diversity is one cause, which puts inflationary pressure on the scope of such a theory. How to encompass techniques practiced by composers as diverse in tastes as Arnold Schoenberg and Leonard Bernstein?

Michael Tenzer (University of British Columbia): Problematics of World Music Analysis The wide world of music outside the Western canon and its offshoots presents opportunity and challenge for the

analyst and theorist, and raises questions likely to shape future research and pedagogy. The problems are daunting, however, including, for starters, issues of representation and relationships between outsider perception and the insider production of cultural meaning. How much, and what kinds, of expertise are prerequisite for analyzing world musics? What can engagement among theorists and ethnomusicologists achieve? Certainly interest in this kind of research is acquiring momentum. I postulate that a way forward will slowly emerge from close attention to these issues, the gradual accumulation of analytical case studies, and plenty of spirited argument.

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