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  • on harmony and rules

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    Here is an extract from a harmony book. Do you agree or disagree?

    the quote below is preceded by an extremely abbreviated summary of
    voice leading rules ...

    @Another User said:

    If the directions give above are followed, the connection between chords will be correct according to the practice of voice leading in harmonic progression. ... Continued application of the process will, however, result in rather dull music. ... In other words, the set of rules is broken whenever greater musical interest can be achieved by breaking them.

  • if the author had used the word archaic rather than dull, i'd have an easier time with this. there are a whole bunch of (sometimes conflicting) rules out there and if a composer is solidly educated (as opposed to just thinking or wishing they are farther along), if they really know their stuff and can come up with a new way of expressing music, i think that's great. The key for me is am i breaking a rule in an empirical way, or simply because i'm in a jam and can't do any better?

    i think by now actively using parallel 5ths should be part of our arsenal of techniques. but if we do it in one place in a composition that is otherwise written according to older voice leading rules, its just going to jump out of the texture holding a big "i don't know what i'm doing" sign. on the other hand, there's everything right with crafting a piece based on their consistent use. The point is, telling a beginner to go ahead and break the rules is a real problem that is going to short change their musicianship until the bad habits are overcome. I'd like to think the author is saying something similar in an akward way...

  • Very interesting posts gugliel and Martin. I agree with this person whom you're quoting to some extent. For example, the most boring music you will ever hear is an elementary voice-leading harmony lesson done perfectly. Though Martin is correct in saying (if I paraphrase correctly) that mere breaking of rules, in ignorance, is a recipe for bad art. Yet again, the breaking of rules that are known to the artist can result in new techniques and forms and is always characteristic of genius.

    The biggest rule breaker who ever lived in music was Beethoven. But he knew the rules inside-out.

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    Here's another quote, different author, who quotes a third author:

    @Another User said:

    "The opinion that c-C# is the lesser semitone, and C-Db the greater, is doubtless
    productive of serious mischief. The reverse is true. Assuming C at 256 vibrations, an absolutely
    pure Db has 268.04, while a pure C# has 273.0375 vibrations. The minor second is therefore materially
    narrower than the augmented prime.


    I might have also said originally: if you agree, could you please provide an example of "greater musical interest" BECAUSE of rule breaking; if you disagree, could you please provide an example of "greater musical interest" DESPITE following rules.

  • Maybe a mistake to bring in tuning to thoughts on harmony -- except that they are intimately related -- -- reminds me of Tristram Shandy's Uncle Toby's hobby horse -- -- -- if you haven't read Tristam Shandy yet, you should drop that harmony book and read it first -- -- -- which applies here not only to style but also to substance -- -- and that relation requires a little explanation -- so here is why the second quote is marvelous (and wrong in substance) to me :

    In the key of C, there are two tunings for C, the tonic: one at 0 cents and one 22 cents flat;

    there are two tunings of C sharp: 8 cents and 30 cents flatter than 100 cents above tonic;

    there are two tunings of D natural: the pythagorean, 4 cents sharp and the lowered supertonic, 14 cents flatter than 200 cents above tonic.

    From C to C# is either 92, or 70, or 114 cents, depending on context.
    From C# to D is either 112, or 90, or 134 cents, depending on context.

  • Yes, I agree that these tunings can represent a far more expressive quality.

    It is hard to state specific examples of the "accurate" or "correct" things being dull, but I am simply remembering how whenever in various music theory classes I got everything "right" it was incredibly boring. I would do the exercises correctly as far as I could, and then go home and defiantly write whole pages of melodies with parallel fifths, fourths and octaves.

  • This is always an interesting topic to discuss.

    My credo as I study traditional theoretical principles is like this: "Know the rules so I know exactly why I've been breaking them."

    At the same time, I don't wholly agree on the idea that material written according to older rules is necessarily boring or dull by nature. True, an overwhelming abundance of consonance can prove tedious if not contrasted, but well written voice leading can also produce beauty. While I forget the name of the piece, my harmony instructor recently performed a work of Tchaikovsky that embodied the common practice voice leading style. Despite its consonance, the composition was as such that introducing any substantial dissonance would have greatly upset the natural movement and, one could objectively argue, beauty of the piece.

    I, however, feel free in my own work to employ as many "bad" actions as I want. Bring on the parallels, baby, because sometimes they just sound so good. If, however, one is writing with an older style in mind, as Mr. Bayless discussed earlier, tossing them in at random just might not fit the piece. That said, I hold aesthetics over rules in virtually all cases, and if a parallel octave gives a passage some pleasant flavour, then you can bet it's going in, stylistic concerns be damned.

    I'd discuss the tuning issue, but it's late and bed is calling.

  • Most of us would probably agree that one can write thoroughly boring or otherwise bad music despite following rules.

    Most of us would probably agree that one can write thoroughly exciting or
    otherwise good music despite breaking rules.

    What gives me pause is the notion that the music is boring BECAUSE of following rules or exciting BECAUSE of breaking rules.

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    @gugliel said:

    Most of us would probably agree that one can write thoroughly boring or otherwise bad music despite following rules.

    Most of us would probably agree that one can write thoroughly exciting or
    otherwise good music despite breaking rules.

    What gives me pause is the notion that the music is boring BECAUSE of following rules or exciting BECAUSE of breaking rules.


    Rules of thumb are for beginners. Deeper principles underly most of these rules, if properly understood. The experienced musician needs the principles, not the rules.

    E.g. : Conjunct voice leading is normal for VOCAL writing, and also because the ear follows conjunct lines more easily than disjunct ones. Leaps add interest, by opening new registers. That means that at certain places in a piece, conjunct writing is needed (e.g. for unobtrusive, background planes of tone), and at others, leaps are more appropriate.

    As a a teacher of composition and "ecriture" for almost 30 years now, I've written a lot about this issue, on my website:

    http://www.musique.umontreal.ca/personnel/Belkin/e.index.html

    (see the links to my online books)

    I hope this helps.

    All best,

    Alan

  • For so many, the idea of rules conjures up really legitimate feelings of limitation borne out either insecurity of musicianship or of self or both. So one of the first things to do is to get over it. Paraphrasing Stravinsky, the more we limit ourselves, the more possibilities open to us. Obviously, he was thinking of limitations, of rules, as a liberating, necessary part of life. And obviously, he is one of the finest examples of what is possible when one really embraces rather than gets caught up in them. I don’t think adherence to or departure from “rules” has anything at all to do with whether music is dull or interesting (which just seems to have more to do with how frequently the expectations of the listener are met).

    A long time ago, I became friends with a painter many years my senior. He asked if I knew about Joseph Schillinger’s book called The Mathematical Basis of the Arts, and went on to explain that Schillinger’s theory was that all art could be quantified in mathematical terms as something occurring in an ordered nature just as a conch shell. Schillinger went on to suggest that the art which has been the most highly regarded over time actually contains the fewest errors, and mathematically drew a distinction in music between first and second rate composers based on their number of errors. Well, this is serious rule time and people prodded this guy to write The Schillinger System of Musical Composition in 1941.

    Henry Cowell begins his forward as follows:

    “The Schillinger System makes a positive approach to the theory of musical composition by offering possibilities for choice and development by the student, instead of the rules hedged round with prohibitions, limitations and exceptions, which have characterized conventional studies.

    If a creative musician has something of importance to say it is acknowledged as a matter of course. No great composer has ever omitted the study of techniques. Musical theory as traditionally taught, however, has always been a profound disappointment to truly creative individuals. Such men have invariably added to the body of musical theory with researches of their own. Invariably, also, they have not followed the “rules” laid down in conventional text-books with any consistency. If these rules had been based on something inevitable in the nature of music, composers would have had no reason to disregard them.”

    Cowell goes on to suggest that Schillinger provides mathematical codification of that inevitable order and suggests that these are the real rules we follow – at all times and in all cases, quantifiably and without margin for error, inferring that all music finds itself somewhere on a continuum between right and wrong. But my advice before you go out and try to get a hold of these books is to tread lightly. They are expensive and attempts to use them in the curriculum at Julliard were discarded after just a couple of years because students couldn’t pass the class. It is obnoxiously hard stuff but not insurmountably with severe dedication. Maybe just google the book title and poke around the websites following this stuff if you’re interested first. Either way, this has been the only text that I’ve ever run across that talks about a set of unerring functional ideas that address everything from Palestrina to Led Zeppelin. As a bonus, you can learn how to reduce a Beethoven’s piece to math, multiply it by different factors and get things that sound like Debussy or Webern. Scary things, the rules.

  • thanks Alan. principles is such a better word. it's funny; i took a breakfast break while writing and thought about how you might weigh in on this. glad you're still hanging around.

    and for those who haven't checked out alan's writings, i'll heartily second their value FWIW.

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    @William said:

    The biggest rule breaker who ever lived in music was Beethoven. But he knew the rules inside-out.


    This would be my exact response because it says it all. If you're more gifted talented than Beethoven go ahead and ignore the known principles and rules of music.

  • I agree with most of what is being written here, but I have to state to Martin that there are many ways to learn, including absorbing "rules" unconsciously. I am not advocating this as a substitute for serious study, but the way a jazz master learns is not by studying books and theory and history, but by playing and listening and absorbing style. And this happens in more "classical" music as well, depending on the composer's own method of learning. The important thing is to be open to new ideas and techniques: to have a hunger to improve and encompass more and not be stuck in a rut of repetition due to ignorance.

    This distinction reminds me of a recent statement which I found very refreshing made by Twyla Tharp in a very good book she published on creativity. She was discussing the film and play "Amadeus" which as everyone knows depicts Mozart as an effortless genius who automatically created perfect music compared to the studious hack Salieri. This is a complete insult to Mozart, who himself stated that he studied and worked and constantly thought about the music he did. It didn't simply drop from heaven as the simplistic concept of that film implies. And of course the ultimate example of working at it - habitually working at it - is Beethoven who scratched and clawed his way through everything with enormous labor and determination.

  • Gugliel's first quote is from Walter Piston, a man who knew how to break rules.

    When Rameau first catalogued Harmony, he studied what composers had BEEN doing -- not what they should or must continue to do. The genuine study of harmony is retrospective, not prescriptive.

    I'm sure we've all faced people who tried to palm off their ignorance as bold and unique. To be uneducated is not a sin, but I've never understood the need to be proud of it.

    Such a person notes, "I don't study music. I just sit and let it come out of me." No, you sit and improvise on chord structures that have been identified and employed for over 500 years, and not knowing what those chords are called doesn't make you any more or less talented.

    It's been said that we're doomed to repeat the past if we forget it. How much more doomed are we if we never bothered to study it in the first place?

  • Alan:

    In one of your books (I have all four BTW and echo Martin's comment) you mention the 4 Volume work on Orchestration by Koechlin. I believe it is only available in French. Do you know where I could acquire this set?

    Moderator:

    If this question should be sent as a PM I apologize in advance. I am posting it because there may be others who are interested but I'm not sure.

    Thank you.

    Be Well,

    Poppa

  • Many interesting replies; I too have appreciated Alan's pages, and will return to explore some more. I did read Shillinger, years ago, at a time when it had been almost forgotton -- it was like walking on the moon, or some other out-of-nature experience.

    Yes, my first quote is from Piston, who has been steadily sliding lower in my estimation on closer and closer reading of his works. There is so much "usually" and "often" and "it seems", all the while giving rules like the one I quoted: if you'd write exciting music, then you should break the rules.

    Hmmm... how about breaking THAT rule .....!

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    I am glad the books are of use. [:)]

    I bought my copy of the Koechlin many years ago (it cost a fortune even then). I am pretty sure it is now OOP.

    A quick look on Abebooks.com shows a copy for sale, but it's NOT cheap!

    Good luck.

    Alan


    @PoppaJOL said:

    Alan:

    In one of your books (I have all four BTW and echo Martin's comment) you mention the 4 Volume work on Orchestration by Koechlin. I believe it is only available in French. Do you know where I could acquire this set?

    Moderator:

    If this question should be sent as a PM I apologize in advance. I am posting it because there may be others who are interested but I'm not sure.

    Thank you.

    Be Well,

    Poppa

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    @Another User said:

    A quick look on Abebooks.com shows a copy for sale, but it's NOT cheap!


    Yikes!!! Is any orchestration book really worth that price?

    Be Well,

    Poppa

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    @Another User said:

    A quick look on Abebooks.com shows a copy for sale, but it's NOT cheap!


    Yikes!!! Is any orchestration book really worth that price?

    Be Well,

    Poppa

    Well, I can't speak for you, but it really is an INCREDIBLE resource, and that is about what I paid for it, adjusted for inflation, 20 years ago! Of course you have to read French fluently!

  • "...We must realize that musical theory is not a set of directions for composing music. It is rather the collected and systemized deductions gathered by observing the practice of composers over a long time, and it attempts to set forth what is or has been their common practice. It tells not how music will be written in the future...."

    "Harmony," Piston (introduction).