New From Norton: Two Undergraduate Theory Textbooks

October 6, 2016



Concise Introduction to Tonal Harmony by L. Poundie Burstein and Joseph Straus. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-393-26476-0. 432 pages.

The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis by Jane Clendinning and Elizabeth West Marvin. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-393-26305-3. 1008 pages.

W.W. Norton’s two recent textbooks—Concise Introduction to Tonal Harmony by L. Poundie Burstein and Joseph Straus, and the 3rd edition of The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis by Jane Clendinning and Elizabeth West Marvin—are both excellent additions to the plethora of books available for undergraduate music theory instruction.1 Both books are well-written, user-friendly, and masterful in their understanding of the topics they present and discuss. Both come in a package that includes an ebook version of the text, videos, a workbook, and online quizzes. Yet each book inhabits the end of a spectrum—one intensely focused on one aspect of theory instruction (common-practice harmony), and the other encompassing a wider array of topics than almost any other theory text.

Shared Online Resources

Both books share the same online resources in a package the publisher calls “Total Access.” Total Access includes an ebook version of the text in which all musical examples are linked to recordings accessed by clicking on a button, and in which answers to exercises in the text can be obtained by clicking on another button. Clicking on a score excerpt in the Concise Introduction to Tonal Harmony brings up the full score, a feature not available in The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis. Total Access also includes electronic versions of the workbook through which students can turn in homework electronically, an anthology of musical examples (paper only for The Musician’s Guide, electronic only for the Concise Introduction), video tutorials for each topic, and quizzes for each topic.

The two books share the same user interface for electronic features, which is colorful and easy to navigate. The ebook includes a listing for the student of how much time was spent reading each chapter, an interesting and convenient feature. I found the format of the online quizzes particularly intriguing. A sidebar on each quiz allows the student to adjust a slider reflecting the student’s confidence in knowing an answer—higher confidence levels result in more points for answering that question correctly. The sidebar also keeps track of the activity and quiz scores, and contains a button that allows the student to challenge any quiz answer provided by the software. After a challenge the student is allowed to answer the question again. After the student answers a question a feedback window pops up to comment on the question or its answer. Instructors can view online quizzes in Review Mode. Review mode provides an overview of all questions, listing which level of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives each question engages, and shows a rating of the question's difficulty.

Given that each question is formatted such that there are clear right and wrong answers (after all, the quiz will be graded by a computer), quizzes tend to focus on basic nuts and bolts tasks—supplying Roman numerals, spelling chords, etc., via click-and-drag—and by necessity omit more creative activities. Within their limits, the quizzes are an engaging, effective way for students to review basic information, and all the assistance provided by the quiz program assures success.

These two books share not just the same format for online videos, but many of the same videos (written and narrated by Anna Gawboy and Brad Osborn). The videos are a welcome addition to these textbooks as they are able to reach students whose learning style is more visual than verbal. Videos cover one topic at a time and focus on skills—how to resolve a V7 chord, how to write a descending 5th sequence, how to recognize modal mixture, etc.—and closely follow techniques discussed in the corresponding chapters. The visual aspect of the videos is quite effective; animated arrows connect tendency tones and their resolutions, and different colors highlight different aspects of chords. Exercises are presented for the student to complete after stopping the video, and answers are given once the video is resumed.

Despite the bells and whistles, I found the videos’ content to be somewhat unimaginative. Most videos merely talk through the instructions for writing a harmony in four-part chorale style while displaying notes on a staff. I felt at times that the narrator was merely reading the textbook to me rather than adding something that I could not obtain from the printed word. Students certainly could learn all the textbooks’ material adequately by watching the videos, but the viewing experience is somewhat dull. I missed some of the context provided by the written texts and, more importantly, connections of four-part exercises to real musical examples. Perhaps videos for future editions of these books could take advantage of more that could be done visually and aurally.

Concise Introduction to Tonal Harmony

The Concise Introduction to Tonal Harmony fills a niche that has been empty for too long in music theory instruction. As its title suggests, the Concise Introduction presents each topic (from fundamentals such as notation up through advanced chromatic harmony) with a bare minimum of explanation, avoiding excessive verbiage and any other distraction from learning the harmony under study. Each concept is covered in no more than two or three pages and often in only one, and most pages are taken up by musical examples with a minimum of text. Despite its brevity (370 pages plus introductory material and appendices, much shorter than most theory texts), the Concise Introduction covers everything related to harmony that one might include in an undergraduate curriculum and more, from staples such as species counterpoint, diatonic and chromatic harmonies, and standard forms, to exotica such as uncommon uses of augmented sixth chords and equal division of the octave. The authors strike a fine balance between providing just enough information without omitting anything crucial. Students who struggle in finding the main point in written texts will have little problem in comprehending the Concise Introduction’s focused, efficient, and insightful presentation of material.

In order to pare down written explanation the Concise Introduction is primarily visual and seems well-suited to today’s students, whose main source of information is the internet. Visual information is displayed well with arrows, shading, boxes, bold text, and other features. For instance, tendency tones that move up are circled and those that move down appear in triangles. A limited color palette keeps the reader’s attention focused - pages aren't too busy and contain just the right amount of visual information.

In general, musical examples are well-chosen and explanations are excellent. I have no argument with the order of presentation or the topics included. The authors begin with fundamentals (including a “Chapter 0” that introduces notation) and proceed through fundamentals such as scales and key signatures; a presentation of four-part harmony and voice leading; first, second, and fourth species counterpoint; diatonic triads and seventh chords; chromatic harmony and modulation; and form (sentences, periods, binary and ternary form, rondo, and sonata). Answers to the “Test Yourself” questions that are sprinkled throughout the book, a glossary, and an index appear as end material.

One helpful aspect of this book is that harmonies are grouped into chapters based on how they function in the context of a musical phrase. For example, the V4/3 chord is not included in the chapter that discusses the V7 chord but instead appears in a chapter with the viio6 chord, as both chords occur as passing harmonies over scale degree 2 in the bass. Likewise, the ii6 chord appears in a chapter with the IV and ii6/5 chords (all have scale degree 4 in the bass and move to a dominant harmony) instead of the chapter that discusses root position ii. This order of presentation is quite useful in elucidating how chords behave in relation to other chords, and helps students learn not just individual harmonies but the grammar of common-practice harmony as well.

Other useful features include voice-leading reductions and illustrations of not just correct procedures but incorrect ones too. Voice-leading reductions appear below many of the examples from real pieces of music. The reductions effectively illustrate how the harmonies under discussion are used in actual compositions and link harmony to counterpoint, avoiding the vertical emphasis all too common in many theory texts. Many new techniques are introduced with both correct and incorrect examples, a feature that helps students avoid common errors.

Although the Concise Introduction has many outstanding features, its concision is at times a weakness. The page count belies the sheer amount of information covered in each chapter, resulting in a fairly dense reading experience. For example, Chapter 31, which presents augmented sixths, contains in its ten pages the following sections: function and tendency tones; types of augmented sixth (Italian, French, German); harmonic progressions involving augmented sixths; harmonies that precede augmented sixths; augmented sixth chords embellishing V; moving between different augmented sixth chords; review; a self-quiz; and a list of online materials relating to the chapter. The online version of the book contains in this chapter further optional sections on augmented sixths followed by a passing 6/4 or applied chord to V; augmented sixths resolving to V7; German sixths resolving directly to V; augmented sixth chords leading to harmonies other than V; and uncommon types of augmented sixth chords. Any student attempting to absorb all the information in this chapter, and in many others, might be overwhelmed. Instructors could use the brief “Points for Review” at the end of each chapter as a guide to which topics are more important than others, but the authors do not offer help in selecting which topics to present and which to omit.

Also, as a result of the de-emphasis on text, various topics require more explanation. In particular, this book is weak on “whys”—why does a particular chord behave as it does, why do sevenths of chords descend by step, why are parallel fifths and octaves prohibited in four-part chorale writing, etc. The authors merely state a rule or procedure without explanation, and seem to encourage rote learning rather than deeper understanding.

In keeping with its stripped-down nature, the Concise Introduction focuses almost exclusively on teaching four-part chorale writing. There is very little discussion of non-chorale settings (in fact, there is no discussion of the concept of texture anywhere in the book). Almost every chapter exhibits the same organization: it presents a harmony, shows it in several musical examples and in a four-part setting, and provides students with opportunities to use it in figured bass and chorale melody harmonization. The book rarely delves into aspects of melodies other than chorale melodies, motivic analysis, performance and analysis, rhythm, meter, or other non-harmonic parameters. While perfect for an intensive course in harmony and voice-leading, the Concise Introduction might not work well in a broader music theory course that covers more than just part-writing and Roman numeral analysis.

The range of musical excerpts in the Concise Introduction is quite narrow. The majority of excerpts come from the works of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms, and the most recent composer included is Scott Joplin. (The Concise Introduction does not cover early music or post-tonal music, so no examples of those categories are needed.) Showing common-practice harmonies at work in popular music, jazz, musical theater, and/or the Great American Songbook would have been a welcome addition. This book’s choice of repertoire presents a curious contradiction. Its electronic resources are as up-to-date as one could find, but its focus on Germanic common-practice music in mostly four-part settings seems somewhat old-fashioned.

The Concise Introduction’s workbook, while comprehensive, provides mostly useful but unimaginative exercises in chord spelling, Roman numeral labeling, figured bass, and melody harmonization. A few chapters contain composition exercises, but since the authors provide little instruction for them ("Write a work in rounded binary form" is the extent of a typical composition assignment) it would be very difficult for students to complete composition assignments without significant help. The workbook fits well with the straightforward no-frills aspect of the text, but could have been much more engaging.

The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis, 3rd edition

The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis is one of the most comprehensive undergraduate theory texts available. It aims to cover the entire undergraduate curriculum in one book, moving from elementary fundamentals topics through several different types of counterpoint (all five species, “chorale style,” and Baroque counterpoint), diatonic and chromatic harmony, phrase rhythm and hypermeter, form (including sonatina, sonata-rondo, and concerto form, all rarely presented in textbooks), analysis of popular music, and a wide variety of post-tonal topics including set theory, serial theory, and new rhythmic techniques. While the heart of the book is the chapters on tonal harmony, the additional sections are in no way ancillary. In contrast to many theory textbooks, in which the section on fundamentals is designed merely for review of concepts learned earlier, the Musician’s Guide’s fundamentals section is large and detailed enough so that it could be used for a stand-alone fundamentals course. Likewise, the section on post-tonal music contains almost everything one might want to teach in a course on that topic, including lots of information on form and rhythm in addition to techniques that involve pitch.

The 3rd edition of The Musician’s Guide contains a number of features not in the 2nd edition in addition to the online videos and quizzes (the 2nd edition included just an ebook). New repertoire has been added to both the text and its accompanying anthology including some recent pop music by U2, Freddie Mercury, Katy Perry, and others. A few new concepts, such as 18th-century topic theory, are added, while discussion of others, such as concerto form and centric music of the twentieth century (Debussy, Bartók, etc.) have been expanded. The presentation of diatonic sequences, which was quite convoluted in the 2nd edition, has been simplified, and related concepts have been grouped more effectively. For example, the rondo is now combined into a chapter with sonata-rondo and large-scale ternary form, while the two serialism chapters found in the 2nd edition are now blended into one chapter.

There is much to like in The Musician’s Guide. Explanations are consistently excellent, although at times a bit wordy. Although the book is stuffed with information, different colors, type faces, and other visual presentation methods (boxes, etc.) help the reader sort out main points from supporting information. Each chapter begins with an outline of its content, a brief overview of what it discusses, and a list of repertoire mentioned therein. (Many excerpts in the text appear as full scores in the accompanying anthology.) Each chapter ends with a list of important terms and questions for review. The authors are careful to provide multiple explanations for many concepts, touching on several different learning styles along the way, thus ensuring that every student can master each concept in a way that resonates with him or her.

The Musician’s Guide groups harmonic topics by their function—tonics and dominants first, then predominants—which is slightly different than the order of topics in the Concise Introduction but no less effective. Some musical examples are accompanied by what the authors call “contextual analysis,” in which function categories are listed below Roman numerals on their own level, reinforcing the overall organization of the book. Other examples are reduced to elegant bass line diagrams, which enable the student to understand musical motion with extraneous details pared away. Musical examples are always clear and insightful.

Another useful feature of the Musician’s Guide’s organization is its incorporation of spiral learning. The same topics return again and again, each time in more depth—for example, a review of the resolution of V7 chords occurs in several chapters. Students thus are continually reminded of important concepts while at the same time learning and understanding more each time. As an interesting example, the authors introduce the idea of pitch class in chapter 1 (letter names of notes, the staff, and the piano keyboard) and then expand that idea at the end of the book in a chapter on twentieth-century pitch collections. Likewise, the same compositions are analyzed over and over again, but each analysis focuses on a different harmony or different aspect of the form. Students can gain a growing appreciation of the richness of each composition under study.

Other laudable features of this book include its vast variety of musical examples from all types of music (common-practice era, twentieth and twenty-first century concert music, folk songs, pop and rock, jazz, musical theater, and more) and its chapter on popular music (typical forms, harmonic progressions, blues scales, and other topics). The Musician’s Guide is not a comprehensive source for pop styles, and doesn’t venture far into jazz, but, unlike many other theory texts, it contains enough information to provide a foundation for further study. The Musician’s Guide, along with its workbook, leads students through a wide variety of activities as well, many with practical applications. Students complete exercises in four-part writing similar to those they would find in any theory text, but the Musician’s Guide also teaches students to harmonize “real” (that is, not chorale) melodies, some by well-known composers with the composers’ harmonizations included for comparison. The workbook’s many excellent composition assignments, with detailed and thoughtful instructions, give students opportunities to use various harmonies creatively and in different textures.

The Musician’s Guide is a good choice for teaching performers. Many of its musical examples include moveable-do solfège, enabling them to be sung easily. The authors suggest sensitive ways to perform and interpret various excerpts based on harmonic and/or formal analysis, linking analysis to performance in a satisfying way that will appeal to young performers. Further, each chapter in the Musician’s Guide is linked to a chapter in the accompanying The Musician’s Guide to Aural Skills (not discussed in this review), perfect for curricula in which theory and aural skills courses are integrated.

The main drawback to the Musician’s Guide is its enormous size and resultant overabundance of information. No curriculum could cover everything in this book. Instructors need to pick and choose topics carefully, and unfortunately the authors do not suggest any shorter paths through the volume. In particular, there seems to be too much counterpoint in this text. Do students really need to know all five species of counterpoint? Perhaps the chapter on “chorale style counterpoint,” which bridges species and four-part chorale texture, could be omitted, as students will learn this information as they construct chorales throughout the section on diatonic harmony. A later presentation of Baroque counterpoint (in a chapter on invention and fugue) is too short for students to glean much from it, and perhaps could be omitted as well. Some of the form topics also seem less relevant, particularly theme and variations, sonatina and “large ternary form” (ternary in the nineteenth century).

The authors state in their preface that the book was organized into 40 chapters to match the chapters in The Musician’s Guide to Aural Skills. As a result, some unrelated topics end up grouped together. For example, the V7 chord, subdominant and supertonic chords, and introductory instructions for figured bass realization and chorale melody harmonization all appear in Chapter 13. Each of these topics could benefit from its own chapter, and the discussion of IV and ii is too short.

The Musician’s Guide also could benefit from talking students through more extended analyses, particularly in form chapters. The authors describe features of each form but do not do enough to show how those features interact over large spans, or across an entire work. Similarly, the post-tonal chapters need model analyses that could show students how to apply new concepts to the analysis of an entire work.

Two small details also stuck out as ill-advised. Early chapters seem too focused on labeling every chord with a Roman numeral, such that I and IV chords over bass passing tones become “I4/2” and “IV4/2” chords. And two chapters (diatonic sequences and theme and variations) suddenly illustrate and ask students to write harmonic reductions in three voices, while the rest of the book focuses on working with four. Perhaps these small oversights can be corrected in the next edition.

The Concise Introduction to Tonal Harmony and The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis belong on every music theory instructor’s shelf due to the depth, skill, and thoroughness of their presentations of harmony and related topics. The vast differences between these two books, and their opposite philosophies of which topics to include and exclude, provide the instructor with a clear choice of which to use for a given curriculum. Students can gain enormous insight into music from careful study of either book. Each book seems likely to set a standard of music theory instruction for years to come.

1I was one of the ten prepublication reviewers for this edition of The Musician’s Guide.

3546 Last modified on March 8, 2019