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Book Review

Music Theory and Composition

Music Theory and Composition by Stone

A Practical Approach

Stephen C. Stone
Rowman & Littlefield, pp xiv + 531
ISBN-10: 1538101238
ISBN-13: 978-1538101230
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

Why yet another book on music theory? Of course there are dozens, if not hundreds, of such books and resources already. In one way or another they cover almost every conceivable aspect of music theory – from the very basic for beginners and those seeking only to understand a minimum. To entirely specialized and advanced. Not many, though, approach music theory from the point of view of listeners and music lovers who want to understand how and why the music they love to works as it does. Unless you want to let your listening just "wash over" you, a (deeper) understanding of music theory will almost always assist and enhance the classical music lover's appreciation of the music.

The purpose of Stephen C. Stone's lengthy and comprehensive new book is to emphasize melody, harmony and counterpoint (indeed, Species Counterpoint appears towards the start of the book). Yet Music Theory and Composition actually covers the vast majority of other areas of music from the Common Practice era (1600 to 1900) too – and covers them all very well. In fact there are even a dozen chapters in Part V on "pop". But it's all done with the aim of helping the listener understand music, not of presenting a series of rules and processes.

Those rules (chord inversion, harmonic progression, binary and ternary form, modulation as opposed to tonicization, for instance) do not vary. But how learners approach them and in which context they understand them can and does vary greatly. This book is rock solid on the rules; but explains them from the point of view of a listener and composer. And it has to be said: compared with some of the (perhaps more hastily and inexpertly-produced) books in the field, Music Theory and Composition does so with clarity and precision. Significantly, Stone sees the development of music more as an organic and historically and geographically contextualized process than a disconnected set of "rules" which are to be obeyed at all costs. "Practices" describes what Stone describes and illustrates just as aptly as "rules" because music changes by influence.

Stephen Stone attended Oberlin College, where he earned his BA in music and chemistry; then higher degrees at Cornell and the Peabody Institute. There he studied composition with – amongst others – Nicholas Maw. Now Stone is a director of Peabody (Homewood) at the Johns Hopkins University's Krieger School. Having worked to develop curricula and broaden the outreach work for several of the institutions for which he has worked, and continues to work, Stone now gives lectures, master classes, and performances throughout the state of Maryland.

So yet another lengthy and expensive (at least US$75 new) book on musical theory must have something distinctive to justify it. Chief amongst those justifications of Music Theory and Composition is its clear, uncluttered and authoritative presentation of its material. This really helps us understand how and why music works as it does. How composers – particularly in the Common Practice era – achieve what they achieve. The clean and consistent visual appeal of the book is in no small part responsible for this aspect of its success.

Music Theory and Composition is divided into five major parts with a "prelude" covering the "rudiments" of sound, meter, scales, key signatures, intervals, triads and seventh chords. Part I (6% of the book's substantive content) looks at melody; Part II (29%) at Species Counterpoint and the chorale style; Part III (30%) at Diatonic Harmony and its relationship with form – which perhaps contributes the most to our understanding of how music is constructed to be as effective as it is; Part IV (15%) on chromaticism including "color chords"; and Part V (20%) on pop. Four very short appendices are followed by a six-page glossary and a thorough index.

To discuss melody in that first part makes good sense. Music is, after all, one note following another. The rules for such basics as stem direction and interpreting the Circle of Fifths are not labored over. But they are covered; and well. At the same time, someone who had little or no idea how notation works would still not feel lost. Similarly the basic principles underlying meter and chord construction are set out clearly with helpful and transparent examples.

The confident tone of the book is illustrated interestingly by those composers from whom Stone chooses his musical examples: the very first one on page 5 is by Nadia Boulanger. Even a quick glance at the chapter on Melodic Construction [pp 45-48] reveals how much Stone has the listener in mind: five characteristics of a good melody are discussed in the context of the distinction (which is wonderfully clearly explained) between conjunct and disjunct motion.

You may at first be a little surprised that it's not long [page 71, Chapter 5] before Species Counterpoint is introduced; and managed with exemplary clarity – largely because the examples given are annotated incrementally. No jumps. Nothing is elided or left out… the way such music is written with appropriate attention to consonance/dissonance on the weak/strong beats is set out one step at a time with simple, unambiguous comments on what is, for instance, technically allowed but aesthetically weak, "acceptable", preferable and ideal. Knowing how composers have used these principles to arrive at their construction of melody is a significant aid when listening. And the relationship between melody and counterpoint is clear.

Indeed, you might approach the next two parts (on diatonic harmony, form; and "color chords", "bold chromaticism") thinking that Stone has put the effect before the cause: "This is how you are hearing the music." "This is the effect it has on you." "And this is how and why… a series of suspensions, for example, or a modulation as analyzed by Schenker." In fact such careful logic is deliberate. His approach – again – is distinct from many (run of the mill) music theory books. It rightly assumes, to put it simply, that composers have chosen such techniques for a good reason. Not merely because they are available. This selectivity and active leading is one of the great strengths of Music Theory and Composition. Not that Stone's treatment of these (and many dozens (or perhaps hundreds) more) fundamental techniques and models is patchy. He covers all the necessary ground for, presumably, a three year undergraduate course and its "amateur" equivalents.

Each appealingly laid-out chapter has clear, simple learning objectives; these allow you to relate what you are expecting to see covered to the progress you actually make as you step through the many musical examples, lists, and tables. Those musical examples, it should be noted, are reproduced on the page at a size and resolution somewhat larger than many musical theory books similar to this one. As a result they are much easier to read and analyze. There is a summary at the end of each chapter/section with terminology and the main points. Again this further helps learning. The workbooks are small "assignments" to allow you to experiment and internalize what you have just been reading. They can also be accessed via the book's website. There are also plenty of pointers to further study – mostly the classic texts on a given area. And, as has been said, many, closely-annotated examples. Although packed with material, Stone has constructed his work in such a way that you are led short-and-manageable-step by short-and-manageable-step through even the more complex ideas. This actually goes so far as to make each chapter and/or section double as both tutorial and encyclopedic reference. Quite an achievement.

The book is the result of over ten years; work; and it shows. Stone's writing style is "familiar" as if spoken, without being "chummy" or falsely fashionable. The book lacks gimmicks and silly asides to get the reader to "like" the author completely. It's authoritative without being "magisterial"; which really means that is covers its material as approachably as it does comprehensively. If you're looking for a single volume book that already seems to know why you have acquired it and how attached you are to music; yet not unable to admit that you can always learn more about the way good music works, then Music Theory and Composition can be heartily recommended. Particularly since it manages to serve as exhaustive reference work just as readily as a series of related, well cross-referenced and fully-illustrated lessons. It is expensive, and it won't be the only book of its kind which you'll ever need. None is. But it's a major contender for one of the very best available.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Sealey.