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Bill_McGrath comments on The Best Textbooks on Every Subject - Less Wrong

167 Post author: lukeprog 16 January 2011 08:30AM

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Comment author: komponisto 17 January 2011 06:22:42PM 18 points [-]

Music theory: An Introduction to Tonal Theory by Peter Westergaard.

Comparing this book to others is almost unfair, because in a sense, this is the only book on its subject matter that has ever been written. Other books purporting to be on the same topic are really on another, wrong(er) topic that is properly regarded as superseded by this one.

However, it's definitely worth a few words about what the difference is. The approach of "traditional" texts such as Piston's Harmony is to come up with a historically-based taxonomy (and a rather awkward one, it must be said) of common musical tropes for the student to memorize. There is hardly so much as an attempt at non-fake explanation, and certainly no understanding of concepts like reductionism or explanatory parsimony. The best analogy I know would be trying to learn a language from a phrasebook instead of a grammar; it's a GLUT approach to musical structure.

(Why is this approach so popular? Because it doesn't require much abstract thought, and is easy to give students tests on.)

Not all books that follow this traditional line are quite as bad as Piston, but some are even worse. An example of not-quite-so-bad would be Aldwell and Schachter's Harmony and Voice Leading; an example of even-worse would be Kotska and Payne's Tonal Harmony, or pretty much anything you can find in a non-university bookstore (that isn't a reprint of some centuries-old classic like Fux).

Comment author: Bill_McGrath 19 May 2012 08:11:56AM 1 point [-]

Is this text useful for actually learning to write harmony, or does it teach about music theory in a more abstract kind of way?

I'm preparing for an exam for a teaching diploma in a few months' time, and I need to relearn harmony and counterpoint. (I was okay enough at them a few years ago to get by, but never really mastered them.) Also, I want to learn them for their own sake, it's just a useful skill to have.

I was planning on getting Lovelock's textbooks on harmony - they come recommended with the warning that it's very much harmony-by-the-numbers, but that they teach it systematically. I reckon a healthy skepticism towards his advice would minimize the damage done.

Comment author: komponisto 19 May 2012 09:51:10AM 3 points [-]

Is this text useful for actually learning to write harmony, or does it teach about music theory in a more abstract kind of way?

It depends on what you mean by "write harmony". I will say that if "abstract" is a bad word for you, you probably won't like it. However, that isn't typically an issue for LW readers.

Here is what Westergaard says in the preface (in the "To the teacher" section):

This book was developed for a first-year two-semester college-level course in tonal theory. (I cover either Chapters 1-5 in the first semester and 6-9 in the second, or, if the students are up to it, Chapters 1-6 in the first semester and 7-9 in the second.) You could, however, also use Part II (Chapters 4-6) separately for a one-semester course in tonally oriented species counterpoint for students who have already had at least one year of traditional harmony. You could also use Part III (Chapters 7-9) separately to introduce more advanced students to the problems of tonal rhythm. While the degree of abstraction may seem higher than that of many music theory textbooks, I have not found it too high for college freshmen. On the contrary, college freshmen are conditioned by their other courses to expect this kind of argument. [N.B.: Westergaard taught at highly elite universities. -k.] The exceptions are those students who can handle relationships between sounds so well intuitively that they resent the labor of having to think through the implications of those relationships.

The best way to know if you'll like the book would be to take a look at it and see. Failing that, my advice would be as follows: if you want to actually learn how music works, this is the book to read. If you merely want to pass some kind of exam without actually learning how music works in the process, you probably don't need it.

(Added: I see that you're interested in reading about music cognition. In that case, you will definitely be interested in Westergaard.)

Comment author: Bill_McGrath 19 May 2012 10:06:40AM 2 points [-]

By abstract, I meant like Schenker (I then saw that you compare Schenker and Westergaard's approaches elsewhere in the thread). Schenker was pretty adamant that his method was for analysis only, and not a compositional tool. So I was wondering if the book gave an overview of how Westergaard thinks music works, or if it does this and also teaches how to do harmony exercises, perform species counterpoint, and the like.

To break it down into my goals: I have a general goal of learning how music actually works (I've got a reasonably good grasp as it is; kinda important to me professionally), hence the interest in music cognition. However, as a specific goal I need to pass this exam!

It certainly looks interesting; it seems a little too expensive for me to get right now, but if I can get a cheap copy or a loan, I'll look into it.

Cheers for the advice!

Comment author: komponisto 19 May 2012 11:03:11AM 2 points [-]

So I was wondering if the book gave an overview of how Westergaard thinks music works, or if it does this and also teaches how to do harmony exercises, perform species counterpoint, and the like.

Oh, the book certainly contains exercises, and is definitely intended as a practical textbook as opposed to a theoretical treatise (in fact, I actually wish a more comprehensive treatise on Westergaardian theory existed; the book is pretty much the only source). It's true that Westergaard's theory itself is descended from Schenker's, but his expository style is quite different! Part II of the book is basically a species counterpoint course on its own.

What the book doesn't contain is "harmony" exercises in the traditional sense. (In fact, I think the passage I quoted above might be the only time the word "harmony" occurs in the book!) However, this is not an omission, any more than the failure of chemistry texts to discuss phlogiston is. "Harmony" does not exist in Westergaard's theory; instead, its explanatory role is filled by other, better concepts (mainly the "borrowing" operation introduced in Section 7.7 -- of which the species rule B3 of Chapter 4 is a "toy" version).

So in place of harmony exercises, it has Westergaardian exercises, which are strictly superior.

It certainly looks interesting; it seems a little too expensive for me to get right now, but if I can get a cheap copy or a loan, I'll look into it.

If you have access to a university library, there's a good chance you can find a copy there; at the very least, you should be able to get one through interlibrary loan.

Comment author: Bill_McGrath 19 May 2012 11:50:24AM 0 points [-]

Right. Well to pass this exam, seeing as I'll be required to perform harmony exercises, I will possibly keep the other approach in mind.

My college library doesn't have a copy according to the online database; besides I'm actually finished my degree so I can't borrow stuff from there from next month on anyway. I'll try convince someone to get it out for me from another college.