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Book Review

The Complete Musician

The Complete Musician

An Integrated Approach to Tonal Theory, Analysis, and Listening

Steven G. Laitz
Oxford University Press, 2012, xx + 872 pp
ISBN-10: 0199742782
ISBN-13: 978-0199742783
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A title with "Complete" in it had better make a good job of covering the ground it claims to cover. In our series looking at comprehensive sources of music theory, which is based on the premise that an understanding of the theory underpinning classical music enhances our appreciation of it in many ways, Steven Laitz's impressive The Complete Musician: An Integrated Approach to Tonal Theory, Analysis, and Listening must be included. Laitz is Associate Professor of Music Theory at the Eastman School of Music (University of Rochester) and the editor of the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy. So he's well-placed to produce such a book. And has done so extremely well. This title ranks among the very best of its kind.

It's a substantial book. At 865 substantive pages, it covers a lot of ground. The eight parts (of roughly equal length) into which the material is divided are: The foundation of Tonal Music; Merging Melody and harmony; A New Harmonic Function, The Phrase Model, and Additional Melodic and Harmonic Embellishments; New Chords and New Forms; Functional Chromaticism; Expressive Chromaticism; Large Forms: Ternary, Rondo, Sonata; and Introduction to Nineteenth-Century Harmony. Each of these consists of three to five chapters which logically and clearly explain the subject matter.

Each chapter is further constructed of usually short but connected examples from music of the Common Practice period with really clean and clear score extracts. But the text of this new edition (published in 2011) is actually some 200 pages shorter than that of the Second Edition thanks to Laitz's having worked through his text in great detail to simplify the prose, move sections that would so benefit to lists and tables etc. In fact he's moved to the appendices some of the less commonly-taught topics and an exposition of the basics (some 75 pages in Appendix 1): here it is that you'll find clef, scales and the circle of fifths etc; whereas chapter 31 is called "At tonality's edge". This works well. Navigation around the book is all you would hope it to be.

The logical progression and the way in which the material is organized with summaries, reviews and its wholly transparent division into segments which are manageable – instead of a longer, linear narrative – contribute as much to the book's readability and usefulness as do its comprehensiveness and appropriate choice of illustrations, examples and annotated score extracts. In fact, to have made each concept clear by using (extracts from) classical music in all but the most basic of topics is an amazing achievement. But Laitz has achieved it. If working with this book does nothing else (and, properly, it will), it will have you marvel at how well Laitz illustrates ways into the complexity of voice-leading, harmony and musical structure. Even the larger structures are well covered: sonata form in just the right depth, for example, in Chapter 27.

The Complete Musician: An Integrated Approach to Tonal Theory, Analysis, and Listening is, though, certainly a book for those interested in tonal music. The historical and cultural background, where useful, is introduced to emphasize the importance of listening to the music. Theory is only as useful as the music it produces and which one is enjoying. Further, this third edition concentrates more on actual writing as well as it does on critical listening. There are two well-referenced (and re-organized) workbooks and a companion website for students and tutors as well as an instructor's manual. While these do slant the book towards college and undergraduate students, it's just as useful for listeners working on their own. That is in no small part due to Laitz's lucid and highly approachable presentation, style and manner of covering his ground. That ground, too, is covered comprehensively, logically and yet with enough flexibility for areas of particular interest and/or difficulty to be singled out and worked at – if you don't wish to read the book from start to finish. There is plenty of white space, illustrations are always relevant (and well-indexed); and the progression with concepts which build on one another is extremely well handled.

There is a strong emphasis on making music… notating your own, singing, performing, dictating. It's not a book to teach keyboard technique, for example; but Laitz knows that we learn best by doing. And there's plenty to do in The Complete Musician. Perhaps Laitz greatest success – apart from the sheer weight, detail and authority in the way he uses the material which he covers – is that he has made the business of really understanding figured bass, part writing, harmonic intervals in context etc central to our wider understanding of music and its study. Indeed, Laitz writes, "The students' roles as active participants – whose opinions matter– are central to the spirit of this text." What's more, it's clear that the subject matter so meticulously identified for inclusion (and alluded to where space preclude inclusion) is presented very much as a course (for all its clarity and modular layout) which respects typical experiences of music (listening and performing).

The Complete Musician: An Integrated Approach to Tonal Theory, Analysis, and Listening was first published in 2004 and already has a venerable reputation. This third edition builds on that and extends it radically. Everything that was good about the previous editions has been retained; much new and newly-organized material is now present, making the book one of the very best of its kind, based on sound pedagogical principles – authoritative, approachable and really easy to use. If you want a thorough and approachable book that gets behind, or into the head (indeed, heart and soul) of composers whose music you've known; want to know how it works the way it does, and why; want to see the mechanics, an appreciation of which serves only to enhance your sense of admiration for their technique, then The Complete Musician can be recommended wholeheartedly. It's expensive. But its substantial. For theory in context, it's hard to see how it could be bettered.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Sealey.