Concise Introduction to Tonal Harmony by L. Poundie Burstein and Joseph N. Straus

  • DOI:

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

Editor’s note: We present another review of this important new theory textbook as a companion to Peter Silberman’s from October 2016.

There is a basic problem inherent within the teaching of music theory: the teacher must break down complex artistic phenomena into simple, methodical, algorithmic procedures, which enable the student both to create compositions that model the work of the masters and ultimately add to the corpus of art, and also to analyze these masterworks and extract from them the same sets of rules and procedures. The problem, of course, lies in the fact that art requires form and thus rules, meanwhile still providing flexibility to break those rules and allowing creative license toward something ever new. Due to the complexity of these artistic structures with which we often deal, this necessary flexibility often compounds itself into an increasingly complex, seemingly ever enlarging list of rules. At times, the task of explaining these concepts can create a constantly expanding network of rules that sends the students into a confusing spiral of misunderstanding. Rather than spending time exploring the nuances of artistic melodic, harmonic, and contrapuntal activity, they get bogged down memorizing a somewhat overwhelming set of rules, often, at least in my experience, losing sight of the importance and meaning of these rules within the flexibility found in actual works of art. This review-essay concerns itself with this difficulty and ways in which that difficulty is circumnavigated and simplified in the Concise Introduction to Tonal Harmony (CITH) by L. Poundie Burstein and Joseph N. Straus. In doing so, I will also compare CITH to texts that I consider overly complex in a pedagogical sense.

Before addressing the contents of CITH, I would first like to clarify what I mean by simplicity. In his book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, Daniel C. Dennett states, “I have always figured that if I can’t explain something I’m doing to a room of bright undergraduates, I don’t really understand it myself, and that challenge has shaped everything I have written.”1Dennett, Daniel C. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2013 . Dennett’s challenge equally addresses both research and teaching. Even in the most complex of structures, there is often a structural simplicity, a logical organization, and a beautiful clarity beneath the surface that lend organization to the apparent complexity at the surface and result in a sense of understanding to the observer. The revelation of this underlying simplicity does not detract from the beauty of the complex surface of the structure. Rather, such simplicity often magnifies that beauty by clarifying for the student what is going on in a particular passage from a theoretical perspective, a perspective that can often be lost in the frustration of dwelling on a seemingly endless list of rules.

I have adopted Dennett’s admonishment within my own teaching and research. These efforts generally lead me to present theoretical concepts as simply as possible in order to provide students with a clear path to understanding. The explanation should only involve what is necessary and sufficient for them to understand. Borrowing from the fields of logic and philosophy, the principle of Occam’s Razor can be appropriately applied here. Occam’s Razor is Entia non sunt multiplicanda, praeter necessitatem or “Do not multiply entities beyond necessity.”2Dennett, Daniel C. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2013 . As Dennett explains, “The idea is straightforward: don’t concoct a complicated, extravagant theory if you've got a simpler one (containing fewer ingredients, fewer entities) that handles the phenomenon just as well.”3Dennett, Daniel C. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2013 . My application of Occam’s Razor, following Dennett’s pedagogical admonition as well, is that in teaching theoretical concepts, we should strive to be as clear as possible, stripping away potential distractions and over-explanations, so as to result in a pedagogical outcome that leaves students both successful and fully understanding of the principles at hand. This is not to oversimplify these principles, but often one can group a number of principles under a larger generalization that encompasses all of these minutiae.

Unfortunately, I find this problem of complexity vs. simplicity common. Many theory textbooks spend so much time creating a rule for every nuance possible within a tonal composition that they leave the student confused and perplexed, quite the opposite of Dennett’s standard. Many textbook reviews focus on the organization of the book, the sequencing of the topics, the contents of the workbook, online supplemental content, and other features that set a textbook apart. For this review, I will largely bypass these traditional topics, as it is the pedagogical manner in which Burstein and Straus’s textbook presents its material on a very local level that I find most sets it apart. As a contrasting example to Burstein and Straus’s Concise Introduction to Tonal Harmony, I will draw upon Kostka/Payne/Almén’s Tonal Harmony, 8th edition. Tonal Harmony has been chosen based on a survey of theory textbooks on as having the highest sales ranking of the group of undergraduate theory textbooks I searched, including books by Aldwell/Schachter, Benward/Saker, Clendenning/Marvin, Laitz, and Roig-Francolí. Tonal Harmony and Concise Introduction are excellent for comparison as they also contain the least number of pages within this group. Tonal Harmony is comprised of a mere 681 pages (mere in comparison with Aldwell/Schachter’s 4th edition, the next shortest textbook at 736 pages). Concise Introduction is significantly shorter, consisting of 370 pages with an additional 40 pages of appendices, approximately 60% the size of Tonal Harmony. This is, of course, a bit unfair as Tonal Harmony closes with a section entitled, “ An Introduction to Twentieth-Century Music,” comprised of three chapters covering topics not covered in CITH, including modes, set theory, and timbral music, for example. It is also unfair as length is not a necessary determining link to quality of presentation.

To assess the use of Dennett’s and Occam’s ideas of pedagogical clarity in these textbooks, I will focus on a select theoretical concept and how it is presented, namely the introduction of the Dominant harmonic function. I will start with Tonal Harmony to achieve a basis for comparison with CITH. Finding a discussion of the Dominant function in Tonal Harmony is a slightly difficult task. The book introduces all harmonies at the same time, choosing rather to begin by focusing on various bass motions between chords in root position. As such, at least at the initial introduction, students are left without the perspective of how these chords actually function within the larger context of a tonal phrase. Function is presented as a completely separate topic.

The actual motion of I to V and back to I is found in the section discussing bass motion by a fourth and fifth.4Kostka, Stefan, Dorothy Payne, and Byron Almén. Tonal Harmony, 8th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2018 . The motion between these chords is presented as a series of methodologies which reduce down to a series of rules that students must follow in keeping track of voice-leading motion. As shown in Example 6-2, when progressing from V to I, students must resolve the leading tone to scale degree 1, keep the common tone the same, and move the other voice up by step. In Example 6-3, they are shown that V can progress to I without retaining the common tone in an upper voice. Here, they are instructed to move all three upper voices in the same direction with the leading tone resolving downward to scale degree 5, an acceptable practice if the leading tone is in an inner voice. Finally, Example 6-4 shows a common tone retained, one voice moving down by step, and the leading tone resolving upward by leap to scale degree 3, a practice not allowed in most pedagogical presentations and rarely found in the common-practice literature. The problem here for the student is the number of items they must track when resolving V to I. There is a saturation and over-focusing on each individual note that often leads to confusion on the part of the student. Rather than thinking of the function of these chords and simply relying on basic principles such as smooth voice-leading and contrary motion, they are left to consider a multiplicity of questions such as how the bass line moves and by what precise interval each chord member must move. Additionally, the leading tone is allowed to virtually go wherever it pleases, as long as it is in an inner voice. The actual functional practice of how and when to use a V chord is introduced in the next chapter, for a total of two pages, and largely not connected to how its voices progress.5Kostka, Stefan, Dorothy Payne, and Byron Almén. Tonal Harmony, 8th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2018 . This is a common ailment in Tonal Harmony, a book that is comprised of more than 50 voice-leading rules in the chapters on triads alone. However, this problem is found in many theory textbooks and is certainly not exclusive to Tonal Harmony.

In contrast, the titular word “concise” is arguably the most important component of Burstein and Straus’s new textbook. The examples provided are both necessary and sufficient. The book covers all materials necessary for a student to progress from a level of fundamentals (assuming little previous knowledge of reading music) through the advanced chromatic techniques covered in most sophomore theory curricula. While the textbook is certainly concise, the critique could certainly be made that it lacks enough material, including more recent popular music, to be useful in the modern classroom. I find this critique to actually be a strength of CITH as teachers are given the freedom to expand the literature included as appropriate for their program’s needs. The freedom to supplement the text with one’s own examples adds significantly to the student’s classroom experience, as they are not simply going over the same examples they read in their homework. Additional pedagogical materials on which to expand and provide practice abound, both in print and online. The workbook follows the pedagogical approach of the text. For example, exercises on the Dominant function provide incredible clarity by having students add brackets to the octaves and fifths and circle leading tones to highlight proper voice-leading principles. Different exercises explore a variety of textures and styles while keeping the lesson clear through an emphasis on a few principles at a time rather than a long list. Exercise 9F, in particular, breaks down composition into a simple step-by-step approach, progressing from melody harmonization through the creation of different stylistic textures. Online resources such as inQuizitive and Know It? Show it! add another layer of practice and drill.

With all of these highlights considered, the most important part of Concise Introduction is the manner in which its content is delivered. When I have used other textbooks in my teaching, I often try to sate the frequent complaints from students about confusion from looking at the textbook by reducing the rules down to summative categories in which each of these rules falls. An example might be “resolve tendency tones.” As each tendency tone is introduced—the leading tone, chordal sevenths, the tones that form the interval of an augmented 6th, and the lowered scale degree 2 of a Neapolitan chord—students are simply required to note the tendency tone in that context and resolve it properly. Indeed, the aural tendencies of many of these tones are quite the same. I find endless doubling rules in particular tedious and cumbersome to the student’s understanding of good voice-leading. Indeed, much doubling merely arises as a by-product of proper voice-leading. The focus on these properties is unnecessary if a horizontal, melodic motion is emphasized over a vertical, spelling-focused approach common in some textbooks. Burstein and Straus’s Concise Introduction follows exactly this pedagogical, algorithmic approach and in doing so, provides a great deal of clarity for the student and instructor alike.

While CITH mirrors other texts by beginning with root-position part writing, it does so only as it introduces each harmony within its functional context, thus requiring less memorization by the student of specific rules for how each member of the chord must progress in multiple uses of the same bass progression. Rather, Burstein and Straus divide Tonic and Dominant functioning harmonies into a series of “one point” lessons, solidifying their Occam’s Razor approach by not bombarding the student with a large list of rules. They open with the traditional root-position approach, presenting both music examples and simplified harmonic models of those examples, which highlight the important voice-leading points being made for each chapter. Chapter 9, “I and V,” focuses solely on parsimonious voice leading and leading-tone resolution. Chapter 10 adds the chordal seventh to V and its downward resolution and voice-leading consequences of the additional tone and its necessary resolution. Chapter 11 introduces I6 and V6. The emphasis here is on following root position triads with their inversion as a prolongational technique and on lower neighbor motion in the bass. Burstein and Straus use this opportunity to solidify the necessary parsimonious voice-leading in the upper voices, coupled with neighbor motion in the bass. Chapter 12 adds V6/5 and V4/2 chords, emphasizing the presence of tendency tones in the bass of both chords and their necessary resolutions. This chapter also introduces alterations of figures, namely raised leading tones, common in minor-mode figured basses. Chapter 13 closes the discussion of Dominant functioning harmonies, introducing V4/3 and viio6 with passing and upper neighbor motions. In their presentation of these voice-leading schemata, Burstein and Straus present a necessary and sufficient model that omits extraneous rules such as which voice is commonly doubled and in what instance. It focuses on the central signal necessary to complete part-writing in a musical and fluid manner and eliminates the extraneous noise of unnecessary rules and suggestions often present when students encounter these early stages of part-writing.

When confronted with an overly complex barrage of rules, I find students often become confused and lose sight of the bigger picture of how these concepts relate to one another and fit within a larger whole. I find myself finding simpler explanations of these concepts, acknowledging that, while the statements made by a given text are certainly correct, the student should rather focus on a simpler principle under which all of the other rules in that textbook will take place without needing to be addressed directly. A textbook that eliminates some of this extra clarification would be a considerable asset for the theory classroom. Concise Introduction to Tonal Harmony provides a splendid simplicity, just the right amount of information, that will certainly set students up for clarity, understanding, and success.



1 Dennett 2013, 12.

2 Dennett 2013, 38.

3 Dennett 2013, 38.

4 Kostka, et. al. 2018, 83.

5 Kostka, et al 2018, 98-99.



Burstein, L. Poundie and Joseph N. Straus. Concise Introduction to Tonal Musici>. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2016.

Dennett, Daniel C. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinkingi>. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Kostka, Stefan, Dorothy Payne, and Byron Almén. Tonal Harmonyi>, 8th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2018.

i Based on a survey of textbook sales ranks from taken on November 27, 2016.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 26/09/2018

Nathan Fleshner

Nathan Fleshner is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His research focuses on Schenkerian theory, psychoanalysis and music, popular music, and iPad apps for both theory pedagogy and music cognition.

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