Harmony & Voice Leading is a thorough, well-written and well-illustrated book. It deals extensively and exhaustively with the basic musical theory necessary to understand harmony; more advanced topics are then covered, such as dissonance and chromaticism as part of a wider discussion of voice-leading. This fourth edition (it's a volume with a venerable history), published this year, now contains detailed coverage of species counterpoint.
This is not an "ordinary" theory textbook. It is aimed at students who want to "get better grades in the shortest time possible". But don't be put off by the marketing. The material covered in the book is sufficiently comprehensive and well-enough set out to enhance the listening experience of many a Classical Net reader. In fact, it's hard to think of a book that deals more successfully with this subject matter for classical music lovers. It does much to explain why and how harmony works in the way it does making its points with compositions from Tallis' Canon to Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. First the authors explain and illustrate the smallest components of Modes and Keys; eventually they look at modulation and the likes of chromatic neighbors. At each step, extracts from the works of familiar (and some not so familiar) composers underline, re-inforce but usually illuminate the relevant theory very well.
The three authors (Edward Aldwell died while this edition was in preparation) aim is to offer a comprehensive course of study in harmony of the music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Harmony & Voice Leading emphasizes the linear aspects of musical melodic progression (voice leading). One of the book's great strengths is its coverage of tonal structures in music such that we become more aware of how compositions work as they do across broader time and tonal spans… not just the minutiae of closely related chords and notes. Indeed, this book will help the reader/listener understand very clearly how harmony works over time, throughout the progression of a composition. It deals with much more than the relationships expressed in harmonic, and even melodic, intervals.
In almost three dozen chapters, of between a dozen and two dozen pages each, a very broad range of topics pertaining to how music is constructed is covered. It's not a book for drilling inversions or fingering Major sevenths on the guitar. Rather, how music from the common practice period works the ways it does in terms of harmony. Very little is introduced and taught that doesn't originate in music of the giants of the period… musical examples abound, two, three, four, sometimes more to every page, or well over 500. This emphasis on "bespoke" music is really one of the book's strongest aspects. We can appreciate directly not only how composers from Josquin to Wolf achieved what they did in this respect. But can also learn the mechanics of the harmonic and voice-leading principles in situ.
There are six main sections of between about 80 and 170 pages dealing with "The Primary Materials and Procedures", I-V-I and its elaboration, more advanced chord techniques, figuration and dissonance and chromaticism, although the latter in particular doesn't stray into atonality. Ultimately, Harmony & Voice Leading is really a thorough a paean to the chord. And a very sane, practical, colorful, well-footnoted, sensitive and authoritative one.
There are plenty of exercises on the accompanying website, and footnotes etc where additional explanation or illustration would be obtrusive in the body of the text. Though, for all the book's highly authoritative and academic tone and approach, it's not a slog. In fact the topics are so well divided that you can almost dip in and out. Certainly isolate a specific area and work on it. It's pleasingly evident that the material and the way its parts interrelate were in the forefront of the authors' minds when they conceived of this book; and not merely a way to build a "course" that would fit a homogenous college syllabus. Sometimes musical examples are less than a bar long – if and when that is enough to illustrate the musical point. Many of the score extracts are cleanly annotated. And there are very few (if any) omissions of relevant material. In fact Harmony & Voice Leading is exemplary in every way.
Production is to a very high standard: there is plenty of white space; there are multiple tables, carefully-annotated diagrams, charts and so on. The style of exposition clear and yet personal. The experience of the authors enables them to predict areas that might cause difficulty and slow the pace; so they increase the illustrative examples accordingly to help. Reference forward and backward ("…As we saw in Unit 2, Section 5…") are helpful. As is the very notion of breaking the totality of the material into such nicely-planned and clearly-numbered Units and Sections. The index is excellent. It seems that several previous sets of errors have been ironed out in the 2011 edition. The book first appeared in 2003 so has the twin advantages of recency yet pedigree.
The companion website has both streaming and downloadable mp3 files of all the musical example in the text, a variety of exercises and an electronic version of the student workbook. All in all, Harmony & Voice Leading this is an excellent book which covers its ground well. Very well, in fact. It's very expensive – almost US$150. But it's also a lengthy hardback, at well over 720 pages. If you are looking for a single volume, that's unpretentious and comprehensive, extremely well written and likely to accord with your understanding of the importance of harmony in musical history, this one can be recommended wholeheartedly.
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Sealey.