Tonal Harmony in Concept and Practice, by Allen Forte

October 1, 1962

Tonal Harmony in Concept and Practice, by Allen Forte. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962. [vi, 503 p., 8vo; $6.50]

The new college text of Allen Forte of Yale University steers carefully between theory and practice. It is historical, being deeply rooted in tradition, by which is meant the practices of composers, not the dogmas of theoreticians. It is also practical, containing over three hundred exercises of various kinds and almost six hundred well ordered examples. The author rejects certain notions of functional harmony such as the symmetrical I-IV-V links but preserves others under the general premise of a "logic of triadic tonality." The time period under study is approximately 1680 to 1880 and every effort is made to interrelate technical and stylistic practice. No major composer of the period is neglected; many interesting minor ones such as Boyce, Graun, Clarke, Rinck, Mizler, and Mattei are included. The curious student will inevitably be led into a world of musicians with whom he will resume contact in his later music history courses. In fact every feature of the book shows the author's concern with a discipline not of the Theory of Music but of the very large subject of Music itself. It is properly introductory to the serious study of the literature and provides the prototype experiences of creative work which refine taste and sharpen sensitivities.

After a nicely phrased preface there are fifteen chapters with continuous sub-section numbering throughout so that each topic can be extracted for easy reference. Exercises and examples are sprinkled throughout the text and are accurately and attractively printed for performance at the piano. Many but not all chapters contain useful summaries and recapitulations. All have exercises on whatever is germane to the subject matter under study. Appendix One is a suggested schedule of assignments; Appendix Two has brief biographical notes about the composers and theorists cited. There is an index.

In character with the scholarly tone of the text each chapter is preceded by an apt quotation from a significant theoretical work. At the outset the author states as his purposes the unfolding of "the concepts of harmony" which are "at the foundation of the art" and the presentation of techniques which will enable students "to compose coherent and effective tonal music." As to the ultimate goal, it is "increased understanding of the art form," which is "the most important result of genuine technical training in music." While it is clearly the author's intention to link the study of harmony and the study of the literature, he remarks also the long traditional association of composition and theory study. Essentially the philosophical position of the author is analytic, inductive, rational, traditional, temperate, and pragmatic. This is not really a novel or highly personal interpretation but an approach aimed at returning the study of theory to its central and fundamental position in serious music study. It invigorates rather than revolutionizes; it restores dignity and excitement to what can so easily become lugubrious and infertile effort.

An orientation to the piano is established at once. In the very first section intervals are described and explained in terms of piano keyboard configuration. Notions about scale degrees, intervals, and diatonic-chromatic relations are tied in at once with the triad and are neatly confirmed by a quotation of the principal theme from the Beethoven Op. 97, No. 3. At the outset the materials of tonal harmony are rather distinctly founded on major and minor scales with the chromatic scale mentioned but not discussed. A brief mention of mode in section seven in Chapter One describes the term as designating "only the general character of the major scale as distinct from the minor scale, and vice versa." In section ten in the same chapter, an important "law of the half-step" is stated as follows: "the strongest, most binding progression from one note to another is the half-step progression." Natural, melodic, and harmonic minor scales are distinguished and their characters are related to the law of the half-step.

Consonance and dissonance are defined as "technical terms applied to phenomena of motion." There are clear and well arranged summaries of the intervals and a welcome use of the term absolute interval to introduce early the concept of ambiguity. Sections twenty-one and twenty-two in Chapter One treat meter and rhythm, insuring that the static materials already discussed are quickly related to movement. Section twenty-three describes the circle of fifths but emphasizes that it is essentially "a visual convenience, a mnemonic device," which "does not represent fully any important structural aspect of tonal music." Section twenty-four describes the difference between hearing and listening, or identification and comprehension, in a fine treatment of the musical ear; the student is invited to a systematic study of harmony as an excellent opportunity to develop intelligent awareness of music.

It is not our intention to describe seriatim the entire book; however, the early definitions are the touchstones by which one can sense the tone, elegance, and sobriety of an author. Chapter One, on the Structural Characteristics of the Fundamental Materials, establishes the triad as primary, absorbs and uses many familiar descriptive terms, relates materials and motion, sets a tone of musical illustration, and rejects a mechanical, statistical or categorical approach to the subject. Substantially these points are exemplified in later chapters. Harmonic vocabulary is introduced rather quickly—seventh chords of all varieties by Chapter Five. Chapter Seven treats in full the procedures for harmonizing soprano melodies, with a particularly fine presentation of a step by step process, and a good checklist of common errors. The treacherous problem of modulation/secondary dominants/or secondary tonic areas is handled ably; in a key phrase the author remarks that modulation "should be regarded as ordered harmonic extension, not as 'change of key for the sake of variety,' as some authors would have us believe."

Separate chapters on suspension chords and linear chords explore the classes of dissonant harmonies which involve transient or intermediate harmonic effect. Augmented sixth chords are treated as chromatic alterations of vol2id685(Italian sixth), vol2id685 (French sixth), and vol2id685 (German sixth), such treatment being parallel to the Piston formulation. No mention is made of the derivation of augmented sixth chords from dominant seventh chords via the flatted fifth. Chapters Twelve through Fourteen concern theme, motive, and invention, leading to an introduction to composition in three parts (within the style, of course).

Chapter Fifteen, Further Techniques of Harmonic Development, moves into chromatic regions with examples from Wolf, Wagner, and Liszt. At this point the issue of mixed modality (in section 259) is described as "a special case of chromatic substitution." This attitude is consistent with the author's earlier decision (in section seven) to leave the term mode to the pre-tonal area. There is reasonable base for controversy here; a large amount of nineteenth century music is easier to comprehend in mixed modal terms than in chromatic terms. However, there are many indications that the author would have enjoyed a longer stay in the land of "chromatic harmony," for the examples in Chapter Fifteen are fresh and expertly culled. It is a particular delight to see so many instances from the song literature, which is often neglected in harmony texts.

There are areas of harmonic usage which are not covered. For instance the interesting matter of non-diminished seventh chords, supertonic six-fours with root and fifth altered, and the various treatments of IV which make Fauré so elusive are not brought up emphatically. Enharmonic effects are not given a great deal of space, and there is no attempt to relate the study of harmony to physical or psychological bases. Terms such as difference tone, overtone, and temperament are avoided, for instance.

In the carefully limited area which the author has defined, he has succeeded brilliantly. Progressive in spirit and yet avoiding any easy novelty, he has produced a textbook which is an excellent introduction to college music study, opening up the past and furnishing a solid basis for advanced theory or historical work.

6355 Last modified on November 15, 2018