Books, good books, excellent books indeed, on music theory are almost too many to count; certainly too many for even the most dedicated student to read. But music lovers, readers of Classical Net, can benefit from at least a basic understanding of why the music works the way it does. So even a small or brief excursion into keys, scales and harmonies is going to be useful; essential, perhaps. The qualities which such recommendable books possess are several. clear, easy-to-understand explanations of all the material. Explanations which (once understood) have been offered in a sufficiently memorable way that the subjects dealt with can be built on and used – by listener, composer and perhaps performer. Accuracy: immaculate proof-reading. A good course or specialist treatise will also have been thought out productively in terms of relative weights given to the subject matter covered appropriate for the intended audience. The pacing, speed at which the author expects, and helps, the student/reader to progress must be neither too steep, nor run on the spot. Within any one area or topic a good tactic is to reach a peak of difficulty not at the end of a segment, chapter or exercise; but some little way before the end in such a way that the consequent plateau confers confidence on the learner.
For some people key to a good music theory book will be the examples and illustrations of each of the points covered. These are best when clear, when they contain just the right amount of repetition/re-enforcement and at the same time may explain the subject from multiple perspectives. Although there are logical, linear and obvious aspects to much of music theory as we have come to know it, real, lasting understanding of some areas (the intricacies of rhythm, perhaps, or figured bass) may only be achieved when few or no assumptions are made by the teacher; and every practical care is taken to overlook nothing and spell out every detail. Most importantly not to assume an understanding of too many other components in order to grasp the current one.
Where there is a CD and/or online support materials, these had better be accessible and well-produced. The style of presentation of the text needs to fit the audience. An overly self-conscious and gimmicky, unnecessarily informal or slang register dates quickly and is probably inappropriate. Treatment of the chosen areas that is as comprehensive and thorough as the scope of such areas demands is a real advantage. Lastly, the design of the book – with plenty of white space, neat, consistently-coded graphical conventions, meaningful indenting, boxing and numbering etc systems, as well as accurate indexes, references and bibliography, if any – can make or break its uptake when browsed before buying and add to (or detract from, if deficient) the reader's sense of pleasure and involvement.
Harmony and Composition: Basics to Intermediate is just such a book. It may perhaps worry some readers on one final criterion, price. At nearly $70, it is a very expensive book. But it's also nearly 500 pages (with a DVD) and, actually, well worth that amount. In the first place, Deborah Jamini of the Mannes College of Music, has two secondary objectives in producing yet another music theory book: an emphasis on harmony and composition; and an emphasis on reaching all the student's aspirations towards understanding theory via hands-on playing. Indeed, from the first page of the first lesson, clear, unambiguous attention to the piano keyboard as a consistent medium for teaching almost all aspects of the ground covered. Even for those whose first love might be the violin or clarinet, say, access to a MIDI keyboard, or even the miniature representation of a music keyboard on a computer screen, make this model and medium very appropriate ones.
The intended progression of the two dozen chapters of the book is for people who really do know nothing to quite ambitious harmonics via scales, intervals, chords, embellishments and inversion. There is – intentionally – less on rhythm; one chapter, although rhythmical and metrical material are not neglected, but brought in at moments when they are relevant. The book is divided into three levels: under a quarter of its substantive length on "Basics"; just a little more on "Beginner"; over half devoted to extending those skills in "Intermediate". These by themselves may not seem particularly useful headings or divisions, until you realize that they reflect and respect the idea that Jamini's extensive experience as a teacher has led her to believe that only through real and persisting familiarity with the fundamentals of the keyboard/notes, and scales and intervals will you make the most of these musical components in situ, in composition, in performance. This premise indicates that the author's approach is much more pro-active and interactive than one which merely walks (or, lamentably, runs) through the rudiments regardless of the student's purpose in learning music.
Each chapter has a variety of exercises. But not as dry, end-of chapter drills; nor gimmicky. Rather, varied, highly illustrative, with clear solutions and well-paced (as outlined above). There are eight retrospective reviews, a summary at each stage, resumés of the vocabulary and drills that do indeed respect the relative difficulties of what they address… some keys, triads, inversions, resolutions etc are more difficult than others. Where Jamini has an appropriate mnemonic or trick to recalling a component, it's quietly produced. Hers is also a personal, though not unduly "trendy" or indulgent style. She has written this book as the result of years of successful teaching, and teaching obviously based on rigorous and effective encouragement. A page lists hundreds of her students. This is all framed by a good introduction suggesting timeframes, the qualities and resources needed to use the book if you're a teacher and likely stumbling blocks.
Particularly pleasing in Harmony and Composition: Basics to Intermediate is the book's appearance. Although monochrome, use is skillfully yet unobtrusively made of ranges of gray. The layout significantly enhances the presentation of the material throughout. Font sizes are appropriately large, though no space is wasted. The book is full of tables, diagrams, score extracts, keyboard charts and the like. Where arrows and annotation are necessary, they are clean and easy to follow.
If you've yet to find an extremely solid progression of tutorials that are well thought-out, well integrated, well produced and which adhere to an unambiguously declared scope (good sight-reading of Western tonal music with an emphasis on harmony) and/or need a source that supplements some of the classic texts in the area (such as Tonal Harmony by Stefan Kostka and Dorothy Payne ISBN-10: 0073401358 ISBN-13: 978-0073401355), Deborah Jamini's Harmony and Composition: Basics to Intermediate published by Trafford should be considered very seriously indeed. Its polish is obviously the result of years of refinement; yet it's as fresh and lively as any competitive title available from the many to choose from.
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Sealey.