Harmony: With an Introduction to Twentieth Century Music

Tonal Harmony: With an Introduction to Twentieth Century Music


What are the first few things to learn if I want to try writing music?
For nearly two decades Tonal Harmony has been the leading text for the two-year theory curriculum for music majors. Used at nearly 800 schools, Tonal Harmony has been consistently praised for its practicality and ease of use for student and instructor alike. The straightforward approach is supported by well-chosen examples and thoughtful exercises, and the total presentation is compatible with differing teaching styles and theoretical points of view. In addition, a set outstanding ancillar…

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What are the first few things to learn if I want to try writing music?(r/musictheory)

The first thing is to do a lot of listening and reading. Music, but also analysis and criticism. Learn to think critically about art, because your taste is of tantamount importance as a musician. The other things are to learn some theory, play, and experiment. Always remember to have fun. Also, you get out what you put in. Writing trivial music is easy, but it is not particularly rewarding (though it does have its charm). Writing meaningful music takes investment, sacrifice, time, and experience. It doesn’t have to be a slog though, and you’ll reap greater and better results by working with measured consistency (say putting aside even one hour per day to compose) than you will working sporadically. (This applies to most things in life.) Don’t work too much though.

You’ll want to learn the basics, for which I recommend grabbing a few books. I suggest Hal Leonard’s Pocket Music Theory to start, then a harmony textbook such as Aldwell & Schachter, Kostka & Payne, or Walter Piston. One of the best tools I have found in those books is the diatonic chord progression flowchart in Tonal Harmony. This chart (this one for minor) provides an answer for your question, as it gives you the standard chord progressions in tonal music. The Roman numerals represent chords within a key (you’ll have to do some reading to understand what they mean). The way it works is that you can start anywhere, then follow the arrows however you wish. Once you get to “I” (or “i” for minor), you can start anywhere you want again. This is not the end-all of harmonic progression, but it is a really good start.

Harmony will take you a while. In the meantime, educate yourself on form. As composers, we need to have a good command of form. Form starts with cells†, motives, phrase structure and periods, which consist of antecedent and consequent phrases. One or more periods constitutes a section. Then, you tack a bunch of sections together to get a large form.

† I’m not finding any good descriptions online, but a cell is the smallest possible idea in music, devoid of any musical meaning. This usually consists of two or three notes, sometimes a bit more (upwards of 4 is pushing it), sometimes less. An example of a cell would be a repeated note (B♭ B♭). Another example is an ascending leap of a third (like B♭ D). Another example is a descending leap of a fourth (F B♭). Another example is an arpeggio (which consists of a number of melodic leaps within a chord) (B♭ D F). Another example is a three-note ascending scale (A B♭ C). Another example is a two-note descending scale (C B♭). It can be a grace note. It can be a single staccato note. Cells can be a rhythmic figuration. You get the idea: these aren’t big melodic concepts, just the most basic building blocks. When you stick two or more cells together (rarely one, but it happens), you get a motive. Everything I’m finding online skips all this stuff about cells, or mislabels them. This link has some good information, but when you get to Figure 2.5, it is captioned as such:

>The “fate motif” from the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5. This is a good example of a short melodic idea (a cell, motive, or figure) that is used in many different ways throughout the movement.

They’re using the terms “cell,” “motive,” and “figure” synonymously, which I consider questionable. The meaning of “figure” is somewhat vague, and can refer to anything from a cell as I described it, to an “accompaniment figure,” to a complete melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic idea, so disregard that one. If you take my definition of “cell,” the motif in question consists of three cells: the repeated note, the descending melodic leap of a third, and the rhythm of three eighth notes and a half note.

Recommended links:

Music Theory For Musicians And Normal People – I actually kind of hate this series, but the graphic design is impressive for the amount of content in the book, and it’s not stuffy like every other music text. A very good introduction. – Accessible lessons, exercises, and tools. Worth your while.

People talking about music! András Schiff talking about Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Leonard Bernstein getting real about Brahms. Again, in more depth. I love his enthusiasm and gift for expressing the humanity behind music. Hal Galper doing a masterclass.

Lastly, while you can accomplish your goal on your own, it is immensely (IMMENSELY!) helpful to have a teacher or mentor to guide you along.


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Stefan Kostka

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McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages

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Tonal Harmony: With an Introduction to Twentieth Century Music

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