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Book Review

Tonal Harmony

Tonal Harmony with an Introduction to Twentieth Century Music

With an Introduction to Twentieth Century Music

6th Edition
Stefan Kostka and Dorothy Payne
New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education. xviii + 713 pp.
ISBN-10: 0073401358
ISBN-13: 978-0073401355
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Surprisingly, good books on music theory are far less common than might be expected. By "good" is meant books that are comprehensive, accurate, easy to use, as error-free as possible, and attractively laid out; books which may or may not have "tests" (then they must have answers!) and for the most part books explicitly designed to meet the precise needs of their readership… in the case of visitors to Classical Net this is likely to mean that the musical examples should be from music with which we are familiar, and not (only) jazz or show-tunes. Most importantly, a "good" book is always one which not only introduces concepts at an assimilable pace, and which explains them well enough (and neither rushes, nor relies on concepts not yet introduced) for readers to feel a sense of achievement after covering them; the result must be that readers are effectively prepared for working with (not merely having memorized) the next concept.

To produce such a book requires pedagogical expertise, experience teaching music to the intended readership and a set of (usually, to be honest, quite rare) gifts that at least give the impression less of lecturing to, more of "traveling" with the reader. That the book is also up to date with current thinking in the (relevant) fields of music theory, ideally has been "field-tested" by at least one generation of students, and contains examples which are easy to understand and which actually illuminate, rather than obfuscate, is also desirable.

Tonal Harmony (6th edition) by Stefan Kostka and Dorothy Payne is just such a book. In the first place it exudes both authority and comprehensiveness. Given the background, qualifications and experience of Kostka and Payne, it's hardly unexpected that their command of the material is as sure and complete as it is: you'll cover everything you would want to cover in a specialist two-year course. The topics of harmony in all their shades and nuances are exhaustively and expertly handled. The pace is even, the progressions logical and the examples unambiguous.

Yet the presentation throughout is anything but dense. Again, at over 700 pages, that's not to be wondered at. There is plenty of white space, the symbols (for supplementary materials, navigation, highlights etc) are consistent (of course) and meaningful. Beginning slowly (as all such books should) Tonal Harmony does eventually cover serialism and atonal theory. One great strength of the book is that the "mechanics" of harmony are firmly placed in real examples, from real "classical" music. They center as much around the context of harmony in effecting an end result, as with the mathematics of intervals, inversions and transposition etc. This is one of the many aspects of this book which set it apart from the more "perfunctory" texts which aim merely to explain and drill the rules. Not that rules are overlooked or dismissed here. But for a music-lover or aspiring composer, to situate even the simpler concepts in actual practice is refreshing.

This pedagogy is (implicitly) based on the assumption that the business of building harmony has little point unless embedded in composition. To that end as much emphasis is given to the harmony which we experience in phrases and sections of music as in single chords. The musical examples are drawn from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Indeed there is greater emphasis on contemporary music (with allusions to jazz and "popular" forms): the whole of Part Six (about 18% of the book's text) deals not only with serialism and indeterminacy, but also with minimalism and computer-generated/electronic techniques.

The material is divided into six sections: Part One covers the basics and constitutes 13% of the text. Part Two covers voice leading, progression, triads, musical form and nonchord tones (23%). Part Three deals exclusively with diatonic seventh chords (8%). Parts Four and Five (38%) address chromaticism. This is a sensible and logical division which only adds to the many ways in which this is such an accessible text. The indexing and structure of the book are sufficiently clear for you to find your way about the sections if you do not want to work through them in linear fashion, from start to finish. The latter approach does make most sense – even though adequate background and context as well as summaries are always given to support the former.

There are from three to eight chapters varying in length from ten to forty or so pages in each section. Each chapter has clear prose exposition of key and secondary concepts, rules, "good" practice and ideas. There doesn't seem to be a single page in the body text without clear diagrams, figures, musical examples or tables. The color scheme for these (a variety of blues on white) is easy on the eye. Interspersed are "Checkpoints" to summarize and self-check; but each section also has more in depth self tests with answers grouped over a hundred pages at the back of the book. There are two indexes – to musical examples and to subjects.

This is not, though, a highly specialized treatise on music, like those on the physics of acoustics. At first glance it certainly does appear packed with substance, rich in "hard facts". Yet, as has been said, the educational strengths of the authors and the length of the book mean that this is never overwhelming… you quickly become sufficiently familiar with the conventions of annotation and titling to feel at home in the solid and closely-structured sets of material that are presented. The blend, if you like, between narrative and illustration is close to exemplary! It's certainly ideal… hard to see how it could be bettered given the breadth of the intended audience. And there won't be many Classical Net readers who couldn't learn something from it!

This is the book's sixth edition, published last year. It contains several new and revised features, including expanded discussion of the larger forms (especially sonata, rondo; sentence, sequence); reorganization (and expansion) of material on post-19th century developments into three separate chapters; increased use of lead-sheet symbols; and about three dozen new excerpts from literature throughout the text and workbook.

There is also a 340-page workbook with two CDs of workbook audio examples (ISBN-10: 0072918969; ISBN-13: 978-0072918960); and a double CD pack with audio examples and an introduction to twentieth century music (6th edition ISBN-10: 0073327131; ISBN-13: 978-0073327136) specifically for Tonal Harmony. There is also an Instructor's Manual (ISBN-10: 007332714X). All three by the same authors. All up to the same high standards; and all recommended to help get the best out of this excellent text.

One is wary of defining a book on such a huge subject as tonal harmony as definitive. But when faced with choices really to become proficient in the area from both a theoretical and practical point of view (and – notably – from a position that, as has been said, emphasizes the virtue of having the one inform the other), it's difficult not to gravitate towards this (admittedly expensive: list price is $80; it can be found for as little as $50) single volume as a first step, a great introduction and a reliable and comprehensive reference source. Recommended without hesitation.

Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey.