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Book Review

Harmony and Voice Leading

Harmony and Voice Leading by Aldwell, Cadwallader title=

Fifth Edition

Edward Aldwell, Carl Schachter, Allen Cadwallader
Cengage Publishing, pp xiv + 703
ISBN-10: 133756057X
ISBN-13: 978-1337560573
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"Simplistic", "tempting", "true" are understandable reactions when taking into account for any purchasing decision the heritage of a book first published in 2003 and now in its fifth edition. Settle on "True". Respect for the venerable quality of Harmony and Voice Leading is truly justified in this case. At over 650 pages, this comprehensive survey of tonal harmony and the principles of voice leading is a classic in the field. It reflects (though is not limited to, nor adopts a doctrinaire stance) the analytical and theoretical methods described by Heinrich Schenker; though it presupposes no familiarity with that musicologist's often difficult-to-grasp praxes. Carl Schachter and Allen Cadwallader (Edward Aldwell is still credited as one of the book's, originators, although he died in 2006) can safely be accorded much praise for just about as thorough, well-written and accessible a volume on the subject as anything currently or recently available.

Nothing of this sort ought really to be dubbed "definitive". But Harmony and Voice Leading is exemplary in every way and deserves to be considered first by students and teachers (not to say by (some) composers and performers) working in the field. It certainly assures music lovers who are primarily listeners great insight into the technical structures of music. In some ways it occupies a similar position as the standard work to that of Joseph Straus updated (Fourth edition) Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory (ISBN: 0393938832), also reviewed in this Update.

Harmony and Voice Leading is divided into six major parts. These are what Schachter and Cadwallader call the "Primary Materials and Procedures" (18% of the substantive content); "I-IV-I and its elaborations", referring to that classic chord progression (25%); "5/3, 6/3 and 6/4 (denoting figured bass) techniques" (13%); "Elements of Figuration" (8%); and two lengthy examinations of "Dissonance and Chromaticism" (15%, 21%). Each of these parts consists of between two and nine units, which in turn are each made up of three to ten shorter segments. All are meticulously sequenced, titled, referenced and related. This makes it easy for the book to be used both as course and reference book to be dipped into and/or consulted as the need arises. Of course it's necessary to understand the basis on which species counterpoint, for instance, is constructed. But if you only need a refresher, you'll find all five species – together with an introduction and (like most other topics) exercises – covered in a discrete section [Part I, Unit 5] of 30 pages or so.

There are three appendices (on keyboard progressions, score reduction and the conventions of Roman numerals and registers) as well as two indices: of musical examples and (very detailed and complete) the subjects covered by these two expert musicians and teachers. There is a companion website with access to an eBook version of the text, audio examples, and all the exercises in PDF format, as well as an example worked exercise. It can safely be said that there is barely a sub-topic describing and explaining how tonal harmony serves the creation of great music that is left out here. You can also be sure that the order in which such inter-related topics are dealt with is clever, effective and highly likely in and of itself to aid understanding.

There are umpteen books churned out yearly, it seems, that merely reproduce the rudiments of the subject (often, it seems, for guitar!). But none comes close to touching the way in which the authors of Harmony and Voice Leading have &ndsh; over the years – refined and adjusted the logic behind the way in which the material is introduced. And the clarity with which they do so. Never one example where more than one is needed. Never multiple (potentially confusing) examples where one will suffice. When the material is dense, and perhaps visually hard to take in (the sequence of "fraction"-like numerals in figured bass, for instance; or the relationships between harmonies across the Grand Staff), the authors unpack and expand it for easier understanding.

The main material of Harmony and Voice Leading is the harmony of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in broadly European music. Of course, this has a mathematical basis. But the book's authors have chosen to examine it in the context of inter-related (melodic) lines, as are present in "real" (published, repertoire) music. Indeed, the order in which – especially – linear relationships between chords is introduced here is different from many such books on theory. This is deliberate; it's designed to foster a greater understanding of such relationships by thoroughly exploring only one, rather than offering what might for some be a bewildering array in an attempt to cover all possibilities. Understanding is meant to proceed from one firm "model" to illustrate the basic principle, rather than asking readers to memorize or attempt to become familiar with multiple variants. Although this is scarcely likely to reflect what will be heard in any one piece of music, let alone the average listener's experience of their favorite repertoire, it's a sound pedagogical approach; and one that works well as employed in this book. The direction is additive, moving from simple to more complex.

Relationships between note contours and chords are treated as paramount. As they should be. So too are chord-to-chord relationships, both "local" and across multiple bars throughout musical movements' development. This primes the reader for a more grounded understanding of how melody and harmony really work; and why. Harmony is so much more than the progression over two adjacent chords. That's a simple concept; but one which is not easy to explain or grasp. Schachter and Cadwallader have done an excellent job: they tackle this material incrementally, step-by-step; and with carefully and clearly-annotated illustrations at all times. Ambiguities and sources of potential confusion are calmly dealt with, and despatched.

Judicious (restrained) choice of color helps to make the entire book easy to follow and use; as do an intelligent employment of white space; readable font-sizes in the score excerpts; and generally manageable, though never abbreviated, paragraphing – not only for navigation, but also to render the musical ideas concise and more easily assimilable. It's important to be aware of what you are about to work on; and to have a clear and retrievable sense that and when you have done so. Schachter and Cadwallader achieve this division and setting of expectations very well.

The previous, fourth, edition of Harmony and Voice Leading was reviewed very favorably ISBN: 0495189758 in 2011. This, fifth, has not changed radically in approach or execution. But what changes have been made are significant. The new edition benefits from a thorough review by authors (and publisher) of presentation, use of terminology and choice of musical examples. The exercises have also been tightened. One major shortcoming of the previous editions was the lack of distinction between upper and lower case Roman numerals where they are used for scale steps and as chord descriptors. This has been rectified here.

It's tempting to think that these changes have been implemented as a direct result of feedback from the book's many users. This fifth edition deserves to garner many more. Those already possessing the fourth (or even earlier) editions will find – despite its high price at a minimum of US$125 – the new edition useful; although perhaps not essential. If you don't yet own such a (guided) exposition of how harmony works in the Common Practice Era and really want to explore it in depth, sure in the knowledge that you are in expert hands and will come away infinitely better informed (and hence better equipped to enjoy serious music thanks to possessing a significantly enhanced understanding of these aspects of its working), Harmony and Voice Leading should be at the top of your list.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Sealey.