Music and Vision homepage


Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Harmonious learning

John Cage (an expert in provocation) viewed the study of harmony as a triviality. 'A reasonably bright music student can learn all about harmony in an hour' he said, '- and modern harmony in another twenty minutes'. He was not alone. Long before he broadcast that opinion in an interview, Major Noël Desjoyaux, a composer who for four years studied with Brahms, remembered a lunchtime with friends at which Brahms, irritated by the talk of 'studying harmony', asked what it was. 'In France and Italy' he said, 'they lay too much stress on classes in harmony!' When no one was quick enough to give him a definition of harmony, he swept away the topic, saying: 'Harmony is a collection of baptismal nicknames, brought together so that by calling them by name one can politely salute chords. And chords are groups of more or less consonant sounds which counterpoint has united!'

Musical pedagogy has judged 'harmony' to be at its core for no better reason than that it is a teachable process, one around which theoretical formulae can be evolved, laws and regulations laid down, and upon which judgements of correctness and expertise can be pronounced. It is a purely academic fantasy that creates its own authoritative masters, stimulating the writing of innumerable textbooks that serve, along with the experts, to attempt an undermining of confidence in real and far superior musicians for whom music is not a series of vertical components, but a texture of flowing lines that circulate and collide like the threads of a tapestry.

Students should not be entangled in such a spurious and rigid study of irrelevant rules. They should be taught to invent melodic lines and weave them together, creating their own judgement of satisfactory collisions. Sadly this is unlikely to catch on because it cannot be marked right or wrong.

The study of harmony looks backwards. Those expert theorists manufacture rules from the idiosyncrasies of composers for whom the explanations of the process would have been both amusing and irrelevant. The artists under scrutiny would not be able to understand why time should be wasted in finding out how things had been done instead of using the time to do something fresh. But of course, that sort of expert can't manage creative production.

Copyright © 13 April 2004 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK


From: Bob Jordahl, USA

As a retired college music professor and theory teacher, let me say 'bravo'! Theorists are the musical equivalents of 'pill-pushers' in medicine!


From: Gordon Rumson, Canada

For the most part: Quite so!

I would say that the students should do the hour and twenty minutes worth of study but that too much attention to the labels of chords is not very illuminating. (Though jazz musicians often remind young players to learn the scales and harmonies).

But in agreement I suggest this: Can you imagine someone going through the text of Homer, Milton or Aurobindo labeling the parts of speech of each word? Can you imagine such a person thinking they had gained a great deal?

Consider the books of analysis from this vantage point...


From: Colin Seamarks, UK

Patric Standford, in his remarks about academic harmony, quotes John Cage. Interestingly, the article above lists Wilfrid Mellers's Scrutiny articles, which include a number on Edmund Rubbra. Rubbra himself had an article published in Scrutiny before the war, Harmony and Composition, which was written, he says, to replace a harmony textbook he wanted to write, but for which he had not had 'the necessary leisure'.

In the article, Rubbra also attacks academic harmony, and gives an example of a passage which is academically correct, followed by one which is not, but which is, he says, much more interesting.

I wrote to Rubbra, largely agreeing with him, but he had no memory of having written it. I also said that the opening chords of his Fourth Symphony, usually described as repetitions of a dominant seventh, are misnamed, since, as the chord is never resolved in the conventional way (unless you see the A minor main key of the finale as the ultimate resolution), and is therefore not a dominant seventh of anything.

Rubbra replied that I was right, but that it was 'as good a name as any for such a recognisable chord'.

In that way he hit upon a point. I remember, at school, being asked to write a tune for some words. I began with an upward leap of a major seventh. The only comment it received was 'What key is this in?', which was annoying.

However, ultimately, I am grateful for having learnt academic harmony. It is a great help in analysis and description, and in ultimate understanding of what the great composers are doing.


From: Alistair Hinton, UK


Ah, those learned teachers upon which Mr Standford casts doubts - if not actual aspersions - in matters harmonic, bringing suddenly to mind

'The bookful blockhead, ignorantly read,
With loads of learned lumber in his head'

of Alexander Pope's nicely alliterative couplet.

In invoking the egregious Ebenezer Prout, the composer Sorabji seems to have pre-echoed Mr Standford's sentiments in his essay Organic and Inorganic Form (from his second collection of essays under the delightful title Mi Contra Fa; The Immoralisings of a Machiavellian Musician [1947]), albeit with 'form' rather than 'harmony' as its core (here, Stanford fares less than well while Standford escapes Sorabji's attentions entirely ...)

Whilst I would venture to question Mr Standford's bald sounding assertion that 'the study of harmony looks backwards', his entreaties about the vital need for potential creative artists not to be swamped by rules and regulations are beyond sensible argument and must be accepted as presented; Chopin - admirers of whose harmonic developments include Boulez - became increasingly concerned to study certain techniques of past composers when in his 30s, but however important this was to his development at that stage in his career, it had been of little help to him when he stunned the world with his Op 10 études while still in his 'teens.

The pedagogues - in all areas of musical pursuit, including those harmonic matters which are the cantus firmus of Mr Standford's current provocations - are, to greater or lesser degree, guilty of spreading such vast quantities of academic 'fertiliser' on the soil of youth that the danger of stifling growth and discouraging the development of new species is arguably not a small one. It's not enough to salve the conscience by countering that the improviser's art is at the same time encouraged by some of them; for one thing, that is by no means a universal fact and, for another, the true purpose and function of improvising as an integral part of musical education and creativity is all too often passed over in favour of a view of it as a merely interesting byway not to be ignored entirely. This is not to suggest that the now generally discredited 'free expression is all' stance ought not thoroughly to have been discredited; the issue at stake here is that the all-important need to pursue the study of harmony, counterpoint, melody and rhythm must never be divorced from its proper context - that is to say the living, thriving, thrusting musical expressions of Palestrina, Xenakis, Bach, Wagner, Delius, Chopin, Beethoven, Medtner, Varèse, Mahler - the purpose of such study accordingly being to stimulate, not stultify, the creative urges and imaginations of prospective young composers.

Personally, I have never forgotten my simultaneous amusement and dismay when encountering, some 35 years ago, a certain then fashionable musical textbook's references to 'verticalised adjacencies' - that is to say, entities which the eminently sane Elliott Carter would, like most of the rest of us, simply call 'chords'; my tasteless and unworthy reaction thereto (for which any forgiveness would have to be based upon my youth and inexperience at the time) was mindful of another older harmony textbook which had at least been written (as this more recent one had not been) by a composer - 'Piston? - or pissed off? ...'

I am reminded of Sorabji's quotation from Delius (or so he said - I have never actually found the exact reference) - 'Wagner understood harmony: Stanford didn't' - when I opine, with perhaps even less taste than in the previous paragraph, that Ives understood Harmony; he was married to her ...




 << Music & Vision home                 Originality >>