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Guest Editorials

‘Harmony at A level – striking a discord?’


Jane Werry writes:

I am worried about harmony. Actually about the teaching of harmony, and the fact that with every new A level spec the requirements for completing harmony exercises diminish further, to the point that with the 2016 specifications, you have to dig around to find it. If I stick with OCR, my A level students will only be able to submit harmony exercises if they do the option with the smaller proportion of performance.

The board’s response to this would probably be that if the Baroque religious music area of study is chosen, students will need to do Bach chorales in order fully to understand the music in question. How many teachers, though, would really get students to do harmony exercises if this is not actually a requirement for the exam?

It has long been possible to do A level music without doing Bach chorales. There have been many other options for technical exercises, including pop song harmonisation and minimalism as well as the more traditional string quartets and renaissance counterpoint. I know that minimalism, in particular, has been a very popular option. Perhaps the candidates who do Bach chorales are the ones who have teachers like me, who a) learned to do Bach chorales themselves, and b) believe it is good for their students – not only good, but immensely satisfying, illuminating, and (dare I say it) fun.

Not having any insider information on the motives or processes of either Ofqual or the exam boards, I do not know why technical exercises have become less and less of a feature of A level syllabuses over the years. My suspicion – and it is only a suspicion – is that they have been sidelined because they are perceived to be hard, and/or that the majority of candidates did badly in this area, so the boards have given in to making more of a feature of those aspects of the course in which students tend to do well. I suspect that this is also why dictation features very little in recent specifications (if you’re as old as me, you’ll remember the terrifying rigour of the Inter-Board Test of Aural Perception – a 3-hour behemoth of dictation in all its glory).

In my view, Ofqual should have insisted on technical exercises being compulsory in A level music, if their aim was to make the qualification more ‘rigorous’. I believe from my own experience that learning the ‘rules’ of Western tonal harmony is an essential part of becoming a good musician.

But perhaps I am a dinosaur. Someone who did their own A levels, and an intensely academic music degree, many years ago. Have things moved on? Do we still need to study traditional harmony?

There has been a whole smorgasbord of discussion about what it means to be a musician, much of which has focussed on what we do at KS3. I would like to divert attention to KS5, and ask the following:

  • Do you feel that learning the principles of western tonal harmony is an essential part of studying music at advanced level?
  • Would you go out of your way to teach harmony to A level students if it is not a compulsory part of the syllabus?
  • At what point do you start thinking about the way that harmony works with your students? At A level? GCSE? KS3?
  • Is creativity more important than ‘the rules’?


Jane Werry Director of Music/SLE, Hayes School, Bromley



46 thoughts on “‘Harmony at A level – striking a discord?’

  1. Great stimulator Jane – certainly got me thinking! Interesting to see what everyone has to say on this one….

    I too learned to write, and feel very satisfied completing, my own Bach Chorales, because I think that it felt like I was for the first time writing ‘real’ music. What I remember being taught way back then was that we had to ‘learn the rules before we were able to break them’. Looking back on this now it does seem rather formulaic and constraining, so I started thinking about what goes through my mind when I compose – I realise I do sometimes still find myself referencing the ‘no parallel 5ths drilling in the back of my mind. Does it now limit my creativity….? Is it so embedded that I don’t realise I am imposing these rules still on my compositions? Do I have to consciously aim to ‘break the rules’ to be creative? Well I guess it has to do with the intention of the composition in the end. I think I write what I like the sound of, what seems to fit the purpose, but would I write differently if I hadn’t started with chorales? When I write a song, I listen for and hear the music differently, I think …! Would I be a much more adventurous composer if I had not learnt 4 part harmony…?

    Is it essential to enable higher level composing?

    It takes discipline, so in that respect it demands clarity of thinking. Does that mean that it is more advanced? I’m not sure… To teach Bach Chorales as revered examples of true harmony in the way we were certainly seems prehistoric; we could end up just encouraging our pupils to write a pastiche and discourage their own experimenting. Is the latter important? Too right! Composition should be personal, instinctive and creative. But it can also be fun to sometimes follow someone else’s rules or pattern and recreate something for the sheer satisfaction of doing so, like solving an intellectual puzzle – MENSA Music?

    Would I teach western harmony it if not in the syllabus?

    Following the ‘rules’ of chorales produces distinctive sounds but do we need to go through this process as a rite of passage as a composer? Sure the greats of the past did, because their teachers in counterpoint and harmony had, but should we still be using that as our base line of reference for composition? Minimalism certainly helps one to get away from such traditional processes but in itself is just a different formula. Learning from a wide variety of cultures and including a lot of improvising surely frees us up as musicians to find our own ‘voice’.

    I guess it is akin to the difference between English grammar and creative writing. Do we need the former to be able to write the latter? The debate over allowing colloquialisms or text speak, the current outcry over the expectations of knowledge of verb declensions in the Y6 SATS test this week …what is the acceptable level of English grammar? We need to learn an amount to have some sort of shared understanding but what is enough? What about regional accents vs RP? ….

    So what is ‘the right level’ of harmony teaching? Is a Bach Chorale relevant anymore other than as an historical point of interest? Is it an important international standard or point of reference or just another cultural idiom that is interesting to include within an area of study?

    When should we start considering harmony?

    Absolutely at KS3 as we encounter a wide variety of styles and genres. What makes them distinctive and interesting? Might be rhythm elements, might be lyrics and social context, might be filmic demands, might be instrumentation, might be the harmonic language. To leave it until A Level to be addressed as proper, grown up composition I cannot see as either creatively helpful or intellectually intelligent teaching.

    In conclusion, surely we should, throughout senior school, study a variety of compositional styles and idioms as examples of ways to harmonise and colour compositions to give pupils as many tools as possible to enable them to then create music that is meaningful to them as well as enable them to read and appreciate the music of others to as deep a level as they are capable of studying – if to A Level and if studying in England then Western 4 part harmony probably should have been encountered along the way.

    Liked by 4 people

    Posted by buzz440grooves | May 2, 2016, 12:10 pm
    • Nice to see Miss W putting her head over the parapet – I too was very concerned at the time it took me to find any sort of ‘traditional’ harmony exercise in the new specifications (they are there, but is this really ‘composition’?)

      I am going to approach this from the point of view of a working practical musician – is traditional harmony any real use in 2016? As someone who is in the midst of arranging and composing something almost every day, I can honestly say: YES, absolutely. I cannot conceive how I would be able to write vocal arrangements without my background in Bach harmony – it is always my starting point.

      I have recently taken on a job as an arranger for a pop vocal franchise, and my knowledge is invaluable: whether to double the major third or not, avoiding parallel fifths, the importance of spacing, writing effective bass lines, correctly treating suspensions – it is all there in my work. That does not mean to say I don’t break the rules – I doubt Bach would have finished many chorales on a major seventh chord – but at least I know that I am breaking them, and why. What I always teach my students is that the rules are there for a reason, and that reason is the resulting SOUND – a correctly treated 7-6 suspension still works beautifully, no matter whether it is in a church choral piece or in the midst of a jazz sax section.

      And the mention of jazz leads me on to the obvious element of the importance of bass line, so crucial in most popular music and found throughout Bach’s chorales. Another jazz reference: writing for four trombones (3 high and close together, with the bass trombone at least a 5th lower and sometimes independent) directly matches the SATB standard spacing, albeit an octave lower. And what about internal lines, and voice leading, and chromaticism, and modulations? Yes, of course there are other ways to learn these aspects (I doubt Jerome Kern did much Bach harmony in his spare time, yet his middle 8 modulations are extraordinary in songs such as ‘All The Things You Are’), but Bach chorales are a great place to start.

      Are Bach Chorales the ‘be all and end all’? Of course not, but they provide a solid grounding, and they work. Are they in danger of being treated as a ‘crossword clue’ to be solved and filled in, or a jigsaw ready for completion? Yes, possibly, but a brave writer will experiment and try new things: I was always distrustful of the ‘study the Riemenschneider’ approach, as Bach frequently did things you would least expect which just confused the students every time (good on him!) Sometimes we can forget that Bach is not writing model exercises to torture future A level students: he is simply setting words in the most effective way possible to emphasise the mood, and there is nobody better at it. Surely it is significant that Schoenberg insisted on all his pupils learning their Bach harmony, despite it being apparently anathema to what he or they were composing? It is not as trite as ‘learn the rules before you break them’, but there must be something in it….

      So, should everyone study Bach chorales? Possibly not everyone no – I am not sure guitarists and drummers get much out of it for example – but I firmly believe that every student should have the OPTION. We don’t want to go the way of the National Gallery (and others) banning sketching in front of some exhibits, sketching that helps a fledgling artist learn from the masters. You want to learn harmony? Great, let’s start with harmonising a hymn tune. And who is the best at that? No contest, so let’s start with the best.

      How soon? Well, most music students are going to struggle without at least a basic ability to understand and use at least three cadences – how else does one genuinely establish a new key than with a Perfect Cadence in that key? Boring? Yes. Unimaginative? Possibly. Effective? Undoubtedly. All KS3 students deserve the opportunity to learn about the Perfect Cadence and what it does, and the Imperfect as well. And why not risk the excitement of the Interrupted? (The ‘Perfect Cadence that doesn’t happen’ as I like to think of it.) And then there are strong bass lines, and spacings and voicings (keyboard voicings especially rather than the dreaded triads). And the occasional internal line – oh and a bit of chromaticism for interest… and we are back where we started, justifying something that needs no justification whatsoever. Music teachers are welcome to avoid teaching Bach harmony, but they should not be surprised if the resulting piece of jazz/ music theatre/ pop backing vocal is littered with ‘errors’ and aspects that simply don’t work in context – a bit of solid grounding will do no harm at all. In the end it is all about – as is all music – the SOUND that is created when two or more voices/ instruments combine together, and the sooner our students appreciate that it is not luck but KNOWLEDGE and SKILL that makes their music work, regardless of the style, the happier we will all be. We can’t all have the instincts of the Everly Brothers, or the Beach Boys, or Simon and Garfunkel, so why not try to learn how to do it properly? It might just pay off…

      Liked by 4 people

      Posted by pgazard | May 4, 2016, 10:35 am
    • Harmony & Counterpoint in the style of J S Bach are essential constituents of anybody’s musical training because they inform performers and composers for understanding most of the European music that followed.
      Mendelssohn knew this and helped to establish music education accordingly.
      Because most of the current generation of teachers and administrators cannot understand it, write it and improvise it, they change the syllabus to suit themselves. Consequently, the students suffer and are deprived of the education they need.


      Posted by Clive Aucott | August 19, 2017, 1:27 am
  2. So “rigour” here….. something reproducible? separable from any specific time and place?

    Being able to hear the rules is what I aspire to, and certainly a lot of KS2 children will hear them very well indeed. By “hearing” them, I mean that I tell my clarinet player to play two notes further down for a bit then go three notes further down and she says “ooh that’s nice”,. She can hear the rules.

    As for the vocabulary, it can be poetic if you are not afraid of it, a barrier if you are, not sure how relevant it is to hearing the rules but maybe that’s just me.

    Liked by 2 people

    Posted by LJ Radick | May 2, 2016, 2:02 pm
  3. I feel harmony is really important. It’s a wonderful foundation for composition but also playing by ear (particularly for a pianist or guitarist). I teach classroom music in a primary school but have for years tutored GCSE and A’level particularly for dyslexic students. I also teach music theory. Students harmonic understand I find to be patchy at best.

    I am teaching harmony from Year 5 in my primary school via the Ukulele and tuned percussion instruments (I use Victoria Jaqcuiss’s Foxwood Song Sheets published by Lindsey Music). I really hope the foundation I am giving my primary school children will serve them well at secondary school. Taking harmony from the curriculum all together would be to me very misguided. As already mentioned children are hearing harmony all the time. Don’t they deserve to understand it too?

    Liked by 3 people

    Posted by Karen | May 3, 2016, 7:30 am
  4. In response to Maestro Werry,

    Do you feel that learning the principles of western tonal harmony is an essential part of studying music at advanced level?
    Yes. In fact I would go a bit further and say that any student of music needs to get to know the beast that is Music – ignorance may be bliss for a while but it starts to smart eventually! It doesn’t matter whether you intend to be a radical avant-garde composer or a peripatetic instrumental teacher (no idea why they should be poles apart – just two different jobs!!) you need to understand how music works. Inside harmony and musical tone there is a world of scientific fact – harmonics, overtones, the harmonic series, temperament etc. You can’t ignore the physics of sound – and that (believe it or not) is what Western Tonal Harmony is based on. At advanced level, students must be able to understand some of these fundamental (ha ha – no pun intended physicists) properties that sound is made from.

    Would you go out of your way to teach harmony to A level students if it is not a compulsory part of the syllabus?
    Yes I would, for all the reasons given above and more. To be a composer you will use sound as your plaything. If you cannot or have not spent time closely examining sound and how it interacts with itself, you will quickly fall into the classic 500 Monkeys on typewriters coming up with “The Scottish Play” type approach to sound. Four-part harmony is not only a vitally integral building block in the history of music, it demonstrates how sound interacts with sound as pitch and rhythm intermingle to create what we now call “harmony”. To ignore harmony would ask each generation of musicians and composers to re-invent the wheel. Why waste time on “re-discovery” when the answers to certain questions have already been clearly stated and can be easily replicated. Again, thinking scientifically, we teach physics and chemistry (and biology to a certain extent) by repeating experiments that have been done before, replicating the same results again and again. But each generation of scientists learn how to do these experiments and produce the same results for themselves. Surely harmony, particularly the four-part chorale style, is the musical equivalent?

    At what point do you start thinking about the way that harmony works with your students? At A level? GCSE? KS3?
    In my “grand plan” of progression, we cover scales, raga & chords/sequences (yr 8) and harmonic style / cadences (yr 9) in key stage three, mainly as part of another focus e.g. blues sequences need an understanding of chords, EDM treats harmony in a non-functional manner as well as using cadence expectation / tension etc. GCSE has always included the circle of fifths and part writing, although mainly two part. It is at GCSE when we also meet the wonders of Serialism and the worlds of fun generated by minimalism and expressionism. By the time we hit A level, there is a natural progression onto Baroque counterpoint over figured bass and four-part chorales, as well as the beginnings of a more personal voice in composing.

    Is creativity more important than ‘the rules’?
    I think they each exist in there own worlds but those worlds are reliant on each other. Creativity is our musical Higg’s Boson – you can’t bring music into being without it. The “Rules” are our physical limitations in the world of sound, in my opinion – quarks, electrons, protons, photons – the reality of physical vibration becoming so much more than just a vibration.
    My personal musical journey is very reliant on A level Harmony. I come from an non-musical family so we didn’t get a piano until I wanted to leave school and go to study A level Music at a local sixth form college. I learned a piece for the audition, played my trombone, talked about Charles Dickens and got a place on the course. Bach Chorales was a whole new world. I couldn’t play them on the piano – I simply did not possess the skill level required (Grade 8 Trombone and Grade 2 Piano on the same day – get in!). I had to imagine the sounds in my head. I can’t think of a better way to learn this technique, which simultaneously boosted my sight-reading skills too! There was an element of the 4-D puzzle about them, but I came to absolutely love Bach Chorales, entranced by the whole concept of four independent voices coming together to create these amazing things called chords. A level Harmony gave me musical understanding in a way that no other musical experience had. I couldn’t wait for my next tutorial, where my ideas would suddenly spring into life under the fingers of my tutor. It was a steep learning curve (I think my tutor is still in therapy after my early efforts) but the end result was a comprehensive knowledge of the traditional approach to harmony when using a diatonic tonal system. It is one of the foundation stones of my musical knowledge. I dread to think what we are building if we deny future generations the opportunity to understand sound in the same way. It sort of feels as if we will be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as if we run away with the facts and leave everyone a chisel and a lump of stone and ask them to invent something called a “wheel”. But from the looks of things, that is the political approach to education at the moment anyway, so why should music be any different…? I don’t have enough space to tell you why I think music should be different, is different, will always be different. Advanced study of music at Advanced level should be Advanced. If you are taking the responsibility of teaching at Advanced level, you should be able to produce a Chorale with very little effort, in my opinion. Not everyone teaches at that level, but building the access to it is the job of every music teacher from pre-school to year 11. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of practice, a bit of revision, a half hour chewing a pencil rubber and staring at a sheet of manuscript thinking, “I’m sure it wasn’t this hard when I was 17″… Anything less is perhaps most irresponsible.

    Liked by 3 people

    Posted by matt001allen | May 3, 2016, 3:53 pm
  5. “Inside harmony and musical tone there is a world of scientific fact – harmonics, overtones, the harmonic series, temperament etc. You can’t ignore the physics of sound – and that (believe it or not) is what Western Tonal Harmony is based on.”

    I assume you say “believe it or not” because the physics of sound is not taught?
    It would be great if it was. I never understand why it is not given more attention

    Liked by 2 people

    Posted by LJ Radick | May 3, 2016, 7:23 pm
  6. I don’t suppose it would be possible to post an old example of A level music exams or examples would it? For those of us not in this bit of music?
    Many thanks if you can dredge it up.


    Posted by LJ Radick | May 3, 2016, 7:28 pm
  7. It would be really helpful if we could find out when Bach Chorale was introduced into school examinations. Was it part of the School Certificate? At what point was it introduced into A Level if not there from the outset? What was the rationale for its inclusion? Was it valued highly, given high status, because of its capacity to be finely codifiied and thus made thoroughly context independent?
    What is to be the balance between a music curriculum as context dependent and context independent?

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by jfin107 | May 9, 2016, 12:48 pm
  8. “What is to be the balance between a music curriculum as context dependent and context independent?….”

    And who gets to decide?

    What if the students decided? What if “A Level” consisted of a presentation of two diametrically opposed ideas about what music “is”, one being the social practice concept, the other being the legacy of great works concept?

    Liked by 2 people

    Posted by LJ Radick | May 9, 2016, 1:22 pm
  9. The uses of Bach in Palmyra and the instability of musical meaning. Discuss after completing your Bach chorale.


    Posted by jfin107 | May 9, 2016, 8:17 pm
    • The Merinsky Theatre Orchestra perfomed in Palmyra last week including a Bach unaccompanied violin sonata movement. The music of Bach was being used as a symbol of civilization saved by Russia’s intervention in Syria. An illustration of LJ’s music as social practice. Bach off the page and in the world of political affairs. Bach messy, made complicit.


      Posted by jfin107 | May 9, 2016, 8:51 pm
  10. Teaching harmony should begin as soon as possible. Or at least raising an awareness of harmony and its significance in music making. When I’ve been working on songwriting projects in primary schools, using iPad GarageBand, even year 4 students are very aware of what chords sound ‘good’ together.

    I remember myself as a very young person, when I first became aware of the importance of harmony. I was listening to The Beatles I Wanna Hold Your Hand, which bubbles along diatonically for the most part in the key of G major….and then in the last chorus it goes C D G Em C D B7. B7!!! I didn’t know what chords were at the time, but I had a definite something is happening here but you don’t know what it is moment. Later it became clear that George Martin was probably getting a bit bored listening to John and Paul’s churning out the usual sort of chord sequences and he decided to lob something interesting in.

    For the most part, I suspect many music lovers appreciate harmonies and progressions without understanding what is going on. So for instance many people love the music of David Bowie without necessarily appreciating or being aware of what it is about his music that they find so attractive. Yes the musical stuff on the surface is compelling, but much of it is underpinned by a clever and effective use of harmony. It’s there in so many songs from Space Oddity through to I Can’t Give Everything Away. And of course the reason that Life on Mars was chosen as the iconic showstopper at the recent Brits tribute was because of its wonderful chordal work.

    But in music lessons, we need to go beyond musical appreciation. We have to help our students understand how and why things work – so they can do it for themselves … more on this next time!


    Posted by davidashworth | May 10, 2016, 8:39 am
  11. Back to Bach Chorale. If it is studied without recourse to the conditions of its practice ie. Lutheran-folk roots; function in liturgy; function in Bach’s greater works etc. why not study Anglican Chant instead? A double chant has four cadence points.

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by jfin107 | May 10, 2016, 9:19 am
    • Interesting thought – I like the idea of everyone learning psalm chants – might be a bit controversial on the religious front though! Apparently exam boards used to include words in the chorale exercises, but students couldn’t cope – shame! As I said above, that is what Bach was doing, so why not let the stronger students demonstrate their word painting skills for words like ‘suffering’ and ‘death’? Surely an ideal way of differentiating, and encouraging experimentation?? Or was it just ‘too hard to mark’?


      Posted by pgazard | May 10, 2016, 11:34 am
  12. I was discussing (ranting about) this today with a colleague. Couldn’t agree more than with all the points you make Jane.


    Posted by headofmusicwellington | May 10, 2016, 4:14 pm
  13. Oh I see…………………………!


    Posted by LJ Radick | May 10, 2016, 5:14 pm
  14. Interesting that Jane and Matt both appeal to shared social practices (deep personal resonances) to justify the replication of the tasks they themselves undertook.

    Whereas Patrick appeals to the practical crafting element – study of Bach chorales as a practical tool.

    I love that Patrick is prepared to say that Bach is “the best” at hymn tunes. I think it’s great to just come out and say it so we can think about that. (I’m with you Patrick – unless it’s the Art of Fugue which seems to be harmony without the music to me.)

    And virtually everyone seems to equate “understanding” harmony with … what? labels? saying parallel fifths? What actually is it to understand? Does it just come back to talking about it in language that is reproducible and somewhat independent of time and place?

    What about the “understanding” of harmony that comes when you’ve listened confusedly to a challenging piece of music many times and then for some reason the next time it coalesces?

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by LJ Radick | May 10, 2016, 5:47 pm
    • Thanks for your appreciation – I am not known for my reticence! – but I should add (before being shot down) that many of Bach’s classic chorale melodies are not his own and are pre-existing tunes – it is HOW he harmonises them, especially the modal ones(!), that makes him the best IMHO… but I am taken with Jon F’s idea of Anglican Chant – had never occurred to me before….


      Posted by pgazard | May 10, 2016, 8:19 pm
  15. My point was not to promote Anglican Chant as a template for the deployment of harmonic progressions but that without Bach Chorale presented as a social practice with provenance (as Mark Phillips might say) then it becomes high status knowledge, that is the knowledge of the powerful rather than powerful knowledge. Why deracinate Bach Chorale from the lived culture of Lutheran polity? (Turle in F does have a fine passing 6/4.)

    Liked by 2 people

    Posted by jfin107 | May 10, 2016, 9:02 pm
  16. OK so…

    1. Examiners need reproducible apparently context-free exercises to examine to justify the schoolification of music
    2. Dictation provides such an exercise and much pleasure is had by all (or some) because of its puzzle solving-ness
    3. Bach tended to use just four voices which is about as much as most of us can hold in our heads simultaneously.
    4. The rhythms lend themselves to being written down (cf Ravel, Chopin, etc)
    5. His stuff is tuneful which aids short term memory
    6 His style is still quite familiar to us all which aids short term memory
    7. His music is therefore a great candidate to justify the dictation exercises, which in turn justify claims that A Level music exams are “rigourous”, which in turn justifies persuading pupils to do music A Level.

    Am I getting there?

    I found myself wondering if one day we could make the emotional understanding just as testable by attaching electrodes to students as they did their exams. Or maybe they will all do them in an MRI-helmet within my ilfetime?

    Liked by 2 people

    Posted by LJ Radick | May 11, 2016, 1:22 pm
  17. Completely agree with all you have said, Jane (also remember, because I taught it, the 3-hour Inter Board aural monster!). The fundamental understanding of so much history & analysis, of whatever period, is based upon a secure grasp of harmony. Without it, students need to be drilled with facts about things they do not truly understand. Likewise, how can they articulate what they hear in aural exercises if they have no language & understanding of harmony? I despair.


    Posted by Chris Ellse | May 11, 2016, 6:07 pm
  18. Interesting thoughts Jane. I actually believe that one should teach harmony all the way through and particularly at KS5 – not only for an exam spec if this is relevant, but also to understand and grasp the fundamental musical tools that ARE required within all music – even serialism and minimalism. I believe that in order to understand the ‘art’ of serial or minimal musical art forms or other types of musical genres, then individuals must have a secure grasp of the harmonic language that defines and structures most music. Without harmony as an essential part of the music curriculum we could end up producing some bland or incoherent composers or simply music makers that could potentially be stunted in their growth because of a lack of harmonic knowledge.

    Without understanding harmony how can you understand music – you simply become an appreciative observer – there is nothing wrong with this but to produce further outstanding performers, composers and musicologists then the basic foundation must surely be in place.

    Just my thoughts


    Posted by Paul Showell | May 11, 2016, 10:55 pm
  19. Schoenberg taught Bach Chorales to the vast number of ‘followers’ who came to learn from the master; often to great disappointment. They came for the quick ‘how to do it’ fix; he tried to teach where it all came from: leading voices, stress and release, structure with dissonance and resolution. The Beatles had no idea what they were doing technically, but they did by having good ears. When you then analyse it, the basics are there.


    Posted by John Hargreaves | May 12, 2016, 5:41 pm
  20. I’ve been thinking about my very passionate stance on harmony all week, and whilst I might not be offering anything new to the conversation (I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the comments above), as a huge advocate of harmony (my mantra is “Harmony is real; harmony is life”), I felt moved to throw in my tuppence worth into the conversation. So here goes:

    We all know that harmony starts much earlier than Bach chorales and learning the basics of chords and cadences will unlock a huge amount of creativity at KS3. The students who have been desperate to emulate music they have played/sung/heard are (in my experience) always thrilled when they are given these essential tools, such as knowledge of primary chords, cadences etc. There are of course, those whose ears will prefer the less functional chord sequences of some styles of rock and pop and that is totally fine too. But, the knowledge of how basic harmony works will often support any kind of student.

    At KS5 I find nothing more thrilling than opening the students’ ears to inversions, chord progressions, voice leading and everything which comes with Bach chorale/Western classical language. The realisation for them that harmony is actually REAL (as they go and look at their own repertoire or you point it out in your extra-curricular rehearsals) is exciting, and observing and being part of this musical development is one of the biggest pleasures I have as a music teacher. How many times as a student mentioned “Oh, I really like this moment” in a piece of music/song and it’s probably to do with the use of a specific chord (“helllloooo chord IV”) or chord progression (who does not love a circle of 5ths?)?

    What I think needs to be challenged here is the delivery of harmony at all levels. How do teachers do it? If they see it as a “theory” exercise at all levels; a set of rules to follow on paper, then no wonder it is a dying art. We need to be challenging teachers to teach harmony musically, like we do every aspect of music! What does this chord sound like? How does it FEEL? Play an incomplete perfect cadence to any class and they will be screaming at you to resolve it. Why is chord VI so sexy (I don’t say it like that, but that’s what I really want to say) and what is it about Ib which makes you want to sigh with pleasure? Harmony needs to be taught through playing and singing for it to make any sense at all. “A Chorale a week keeps the doctor away” I preach to Year 12s and 13s. Whether they can sing in 1 or 4 parts, I believe they need to sing and internalise. Each week, they will be able to spot a new feature/rule. At the start of Year 12 they might be identify the key of the chorale each cadence. By the end of year they will hear the passing 6/3 or sink into a 4-3 suspension. But only if you sing and analyse every week.

    Everyone can understand harmony to varying degrees. Like Paul Showell says above, there is nothing wrong with the appreciative observer/listener, but just because it is a bit more complex and formal at times, we shouldn’t be denying the musicians of the future the access to the most beautiful language known to human kind.

    Liked by 2 people

    Posted by Hanh Doan | May 14, 2016, 10:33 am
  21. John says:
    “Back to Bach Chorale. If it is studied without recourse to the conditions of its practice ie. Lutheran-folk roots; function in liturgy; function in Bach’s greater works etc. why not study Anglican Chant instead? A double chant has four cadence points.”
    and then he clarifies:
    “My point was not to promote Anglican Chant as a template for the deployment of harmonic progressions but that without Bach Chorale presented as a social practice with provenance (as Mark Phillips might say) then it becomes high status knowledge, that is the knowledge of the powerful rather than powerful knowledge. Why deracinate Bach Chorale from the lived culture of Lutheran polity?”

    Do I understand you John as saying that Anglican Chant would do the same job (providing the materials needed to do dictation exercises) that Bach does? And that therefore we should explore other reasons for the choice of Bach and for the sense of mourning/being uprooted that Jane and others are expressing where the syllabus is not-Bach or non-compulsory Bach?


    Posted by LJ Radick | May 14, 2016, 11:15 am
    • Yes, I think Anglican Chant with its balancing phrases, regular cadence points etc. would do a good job in technical terms. There are some differences of course. But yes, explore other reasons for Bach Chorale. Go beyond the technical and look at Bach Chorale in context. Why pluck it from its roots, the way it functions in large scale works, for example? It is part of a living tradition. It is a musical practice.
      Well, clearly there is a desire to pluck it from its roots. By doing this a strong boundary is placed around it enhancing its status academically, giving it a little esotericism pehaps.
      Thus is the way of the world.


      Posted by jfin107 | May 14, 2016, 1:21 pm
      • But John, there are many of us who try and leave it within its roots by singing it as it is meant to be sung, placing it in its context, and of course, many of the exam boards provide us with an opportunity for us to do this too. Somehow we need to fight the “boundary” which many place around it and break it down, giving everyone access to this beautiful style.

        Liked by 2 people

        Posted by Hanh Doan | May 15, 2016, 9:26 am
  22. Faithful Hanh always a voice of hope and you show how through your integrationist pedagogy how what might be a thick impermeable boundary is weakened and what might be an abstraction becomes full of human interest and culturally and politically significant. This sounds like a music education.
    I didn’t see you at the Kronos Quartet concert last evening. There was a piece by N. Raja. arr. Joacob Garchik ‘Dadra in Raga Bhairavi’ and there was no harmony. Ah! what bliss!

    Liked by 2 people

    Posted by jfin107 | May 15, 2016, 11:16 am
    • I was sad to miss the Kronos Quartet. I relish the absence of harmony as much as I do its presence in my life.


      Posted by Hanh Doan | May 15, 2016, 9:12 pm
      • “I relish the absence of harmony as much as I do its presence”.

        Good for a student talking point and preparation for university.
        (Kronos played Beatitudes by Vladimir Martynov. Hanh, a piece for your chamber choir to sing and harmonically analyse.) I came away from the concert wondering why we don’t concentrate more on the wonders of contemporary musical practices and leave the heavy hand of history behind.


        Posted by jfin107 | May 16, 2016, 7:07 pm
      • I love the Martynov. I will try and find the music for it, and programme it at our next concert in St Peter’s. I think we can do both – marvel at the wonders of contemporary musical practices (from all cultures) and still learn and love history. Surely all music has come from somewhere, whatever its style.

        Liked by 1 person

        Posted by Hanh Doan | May 18, 2016, 8:16 pm
  23. I must say, “Singing it as it was meant to be sung” sounds an awful lot more enjoyable than learning about “Lutheran polity” which sounds a bit… well…tedious.

    I suspect the way people have used Bach and made him “Bach!” in the same way that Shakespeare has been made “Shakespeare!” is maybe the most important bit of the context? As that helps us understand Putin’s use of Bach in Palmyra?

    Finally, it struck me that a music education will always be better than it would otherwise be if the teacher has a genuine belief that they are teaching “the best”. Is this the same phenomenon as when using music that the pupil is pre-engaged with? In that someone’s emotions are already in play? Or is it different because of the power issues?

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by LJ Radick | May 15, 2016, 6:20 pm
  24. Unlock harmony and you unlock music. I’m not sure about this. In this comment I am thinking about the many comments that put harmony as central and vital to understanding music.

    The valorising of Bach’s harmony runs the risk of neutralising an important figure – a great improviser, melody writer, and composer of complex textures. Bach’s use of pop tunes and hymns marks him out as a remixer that kicks ass.
    Some would argue we neutralise Bach as some kind of bearer of great universal harmony when in fact he was heavily influenced by French and Italian approaches to composition. Are pop musicians, folk musicians, blues players and so on really lesser musicians because they didn’t study the functional tonality of Bach? Have millions of amazing musicians around the world really missed the point of music? If Bach’s music is part of one cultural practice amongst many others what other cultural practices could we study?

    I’m not sure about the way Bach’s approach to harmony is seen as the starting point and foundation for all other approaches. There’s a certain “whitewashing ‘” here. It may be that explaining Jazz harmony in terms of Bach chorale harmonisation is simplifying and ignoring many aspects of difference. By difference I am suggesting that jazz with its roots in Afro – American culture and tradition may follow different principles and rules that cannot only be explained as a deviation from our white harmonic perspective. Bach is not the centre from which other music’s are explained and defined.

    Maybe this is a part of our loss. These days the plurality of voices laying claim to authenticity and truth is dazzling – it is hard to find an anchor for meaning. It might be that claims of Bach’s musical greatness are used partly as a symbolic confirmation of the superiority of whiteness. Decentring Bach decentres whiteness and our own sense of self.

    The right of harmony to be studied and analysed is often argued for persuasively – however it is rare to find the same demand for studying rhythm and timbre. Indeed do we know the rules for creating a good groove in the way we know the rules for harmonising a Bach Chorale? Why is this? Is this right?

    (this comment is slightly developed in my blog https://teachingmusicking.wordpress.com/2016/05/17/when-bach-met-dizzee-rascal/ )

    Liked by 3 people

    Posted by jkubilius | May 17, 2016, 4:44 am
    • Wow!


      Posted by LJ Radick | May 17, 2016, 10:03 am
      • In response to Jason above and his excellent blog might it be suggested that if all students are to come to know Bach through Bach Chorale at A Level should we all not read Susan McClarey’s essay ‘The blasphemy of talking politics during Bach Year’ (In Music and Society: the politics of composition, performance and reception, CUP), and create some talking points for our students. This could be valuable preparation for futher academic study.


        Posted by jfin107 | May 21, 2016, 9:04 am
  25. Thanks for starting this discussion, Jane. Reading the comments has also been very thought-provoking. To answer one of the original questions, I would teach harmony at A Level even if it were not compulsory. But whilst I almost certainly include some exposure to Bach chorales (both their sound and their appearance on the stave), I also try to include harmonic study of music that the students are learning of their own accord. That might mean that they are not examined in their understanding of Bach chorales or figured bass.

    It’s interesting that people haven’t spoken much about how teaching harmony impacts on the aural paper for the current/new A Level. Is that because we have a tendency to compartmentalise the course into different units, often taught be different people within a department? What would it be like if students prepared a portfolio focusing on a style, artist or composer of their choice, in which they demonstrated some or all of performing/analysis/harmonic awareness/composition/improvisation/music production? Would something like that help to make harmony more real, more relevant? I sometimes do small projects along these lines, but would be excited by a bigger scope for it within the assessment parameters of the course.

    This week I’ve been doing exam revision with KS3. It emerged that a lot of the children didn’t really understand what primary chords are and why they are labelled using Roman numerals. So we’ve been listening to folk/pop/hymn tunes, working out the chords using letter names and numbers. Whilst they now show much greater understanding of ‘the rules’, most children are still unsure about how to describe what they hear. Perhaps it would help if we examine the issue through a compositional approach, so that they can apply the rules rather than simply identifying them. I may report back sometime next half term!

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by alisonbutlermusic | May 20, 2016, 7:03 pm
    • I speculate that the over-training in arbitrary letter names and vocabulary such as “crotchet/quaver/sharp/flat” in lessons up to the ages of 10/11 is implicated in what Alison was observing. These musically peripheral facts are presented as central – perhaps because they are super-functional if your aim is to grow particiipants in a symphony orchestra.

      If a student responds emotionally to harmony, they are not “just” an observer. They already know which chord is home, which is everday-visit away and which is special occasion visit before the return home. They also grasp easily that much modern music circles round home instead of having one fixed home. But we don’t seem to teach ways of articulating that knowledge (unless we adopt a solfa approach at primary). So Alison ends up having to teach something central as though it were an advanced “extra”.

      of course, every time I think i’ve figured something out, I realise I’m just part of a trend. If you look at the work in many fields of knowledge, there is a shift towards focus on systems rather than components, and with good reason.


      Posted by LJ Radick | May 22, 2016, 11:09 am
  26. Is not heterophony as wondrous as harmony? Perhaps more ubiquitous historically. Is it nurtured at A Level?


    Posted by jfin107 | May 22, 2016, 11:46 am
  27. ‘At what point do you start thinking about the way that harmony works with your students? At A level? GCSE? KS3?’

    This is Jane’s third question and has been addressed in various ways above.

    And in particular LJ refers to younger children’s harmonic perceptual capability, so I was interested to see in Paynter and Aston (1970): ‘ We believe that an exploration of harmony is not something which should be confined to the specialist music course. All children have a latent harmonic instinct which has no bearing on their general academic abilities. The time to begin to develop this harmonic awareness is during the late years of Primary School, which is when it should arise naturally from practical work involving the whole class and closely related to other creative activities.’

    By specialist music course they were thinking of GCE and A Level. What they wrote in 1970 would have been news to many at the time. It might even be news today!


    Posted by jfin107 | May 23, 2016, 8:10 am
    • John’s quote above makes a good starting point for my latest comment. I think Paynter is right when he refers to a ‘latent harmonic instinct’ and I’m sure best way to develop harmonic awareness is through appropriate musical activity.

      However, there will come a point when students need to go beyond this awareness stage, and develop the ability to create and control harmony in their own work. This cannot be done solely through picking it up on an ad hoc basis through exploring the music of others. As earlier contributors have said in this discussion, there comes a point when students will need to learn the basics of diatonic harmony, chord construction, progression etc. In other words they need to understand how the system ‘works’.

      So up to this point, I’m with all the pro harmony advocates here. However, I part company with those who suggest harmonising Bach chorales should follow. I’ve nothing against this activity per se. It’s just that to do the job properly takes so much time – classroom time is precious and the time could be better spent.

      I love John F’s earlier phrase ‘why we don’t concentrate more on the wonders of contemporary musical practices and leave the heavy hand of history behind’.

      For example, here are some wonderful things we could bring into classrooms:

      Why don’t explore the ways in which Messiaen works with his modes of limited transposition – and how decades later Jonny Greenwood uses this in his band and solo work?

      Why don’t we look at Stravinsky’s [and Bartok’s] use of harmony as rhythm in works such as Rite of Spring and Allegro barbaro, the ways they work with bitonality etc.

      What about Vaughan Williams fascination with mediant relationships?

      How about Brian Wilson’s ‘unorthodox’ approach to writing bass lines in Pet Sounds?

      How about the work of Bill Evans, Frank Zappa’s Yellow Shark, Peter Maxwell Davies, David Bedford etc etc

      But this should not be thought of as a prescriptive list. These are just some of my personal favourites. As always teachers should follow their strengths and enthusiasms. This, more than anything, will make for music lessons which are rich, rewarding and vibrant.

      Liked by 1 person

      Posted by davidashworth | May 24, 2016, 7:48 am
  28. If we are teaching a piece of harmonic music (usually ‘Western’) – whether at KS3, 4 or 5 – then we are teaching harmony itself (among other aspects), as relevant today in many styles (e.g. ‘Western’ classical and ‘contemporary’ popular) as it was in Bach’s time and before.
    Perhaps the question should be: “HOW is it best to teach it?”
    As an element of music it forms part of the task of composing. But what I think makes it hard is that, to compose, different instrumental lines must be put together, creating both harmony and counterpoint simultaneously. And this is how music really works, not simply as harmony alone. Students who ‘get’ harmony relatively easily are those (often organists, for example) who are more aware of lines as well as chords. What students need is guidance into how the two dimensions of music can be put together creatively, whether in pop songs, minimalism, string quartets, or Bach chorales – the underlying problem is the same.
    But the idea of following ‘rules’ is not helpful. We are simultaneously told to follow the ‘rules’ of harmony for a chorale but also that Bach (the ultimate exemplar) broke them. This is illogical and therefore ridiculous! Creativity of any sort should have a sense of procedure (where to start, what to do next) and context (what is appropriate). This is as true of Bach’s chorales as of any music. If Bach had been a maverick rule-breaker, then a) we would know about the appalled reactions of musicians of his time (but the opposite is true – his chorales were published expensively, 15 years after his death, in tribute to this imaginative music), and b) he would have done the same in all his other compositions big and small (which patently he didn’t). Bach is a consummately rigorous composer, whether of little keyboard pieces or of the huge, three-subject final movement of the Art of Fugue.
    The proof of the pudding is whether a teacher can harmonise a chorale melody to emulate Bach’s ways – with a fluid bass line, plus confident alto and tenor lines within a sound harmonic framework. Given that a) the problems are around consecutive fifths and octaves, and b) the more complex harmonisations involve lots of suspensions, then it might be noticed that both these aspects relate to intervals. Individual chords are built from different combinations of harmonic intervals, and this is a much more secure starting point for Bach, who used the harmonic intervals of Figured Bass to describe his own harmony.
    We currently think of chords first – G major, or ‘I’ – and then try and work out the parts. But what if we built up the parts in layered stages, so that the chords ‘appeared’ along the way? We should still be fully aware of what they are and how they work in our harmonisation, but they will also progress more naturally because the vocal lines have been crafted simultaneously. And this really would be ‘composing’!


    Posted by Christopher Mabley | September 29, 2016, 11:46 am


  1. Pingback: When Bach met Dizzee Rascal | teachingmusicking - May 17, 2016

  2. Pingback: Harmony unbound | Music Education Now - May 19, 2016

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