I’m going to tell you a really embarrassing secret.
I suck at harmonic analysis.
I mean, I’m not that terrible at it: I tend to have an easier time with it than performance majors, but I should be a lot better at it too.
The toughest part of harmonic analysis is that most of the time, the function (deciding whether something is an inversion or a suspension or passing tones, etc.) depends on context AND on how you hear it. But you have to be able to argue for your hearing of a piece if your analysis disagrees with your professor’s.
If there’s so much discrepancy regarding harmony, why do we learn it, especially performers?
Is it actually that important?
The longer you’ve been involved with music, the more you get to have your own opinions about how you want to play a piece: where you choose to slow down or speed up, how much you want to emphasize some notes over others. We call this artistry or interpretation.
As I’ve moved into the field of music theory in the past couple of years, I’ve come to realize that harmonic analysis (and music analysis in general) is more about learning how to discuss and support your own opinions and hear others’ opinions as valid. Some “answers” in an analysis are more likely than others based on all the things we learn in harmony classes, but that doesn’t mean the most likely answer is the only answer.
Last week, I posted an analysis of Beethoven’s Bagatelle, Op. 119 No. 1 that I intended to post in January. Why didn’t I?
I was so caught up in the harmony of the last 10 measures. That’s it. Just 10 measures made me question my validity as a music theorist, so I put it off and kept trying to make sense of them, and finally, I just posted it.
Basically, the issue was that the motive from the A section is transposed from G minor to C minor at the end, so most analyses across the internet claim that this section is in C minor, and the whole piece ends on G major, which makes it end open.
But I just don’t hear the harmony underneath that way. I hear it as containing a Picardy third (when a composer suddenly makes a minor key major by raising the third scale step) and as having plagal motion, which means that the piece does not end open.
There’s a lot more to it, so if you’re interested in the arguments I had with myself, you can check the article out here.
Resources for Learning and Practicing Harmony
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give you some resources for learning more about what I just rambled about!
For learning the basics of chord building, musictheory.net has great lessons and exercises.
I’m in the process of creating courses on harmony for the website (if you visit the site often, you may have noticed a new section called Courses that is empty right now). The plan is to cover everything from fundamentals (reading sheet music – which will be a free course) and then what you’d learn in a typical undergraduate core theory sequence. There will also be courses on learning piano as well as single tutorials and analyses. But that will be in the far future.
Just something for you all to look forward to! For now, the resources above can get you discussing harmony, so you can be confident in your interpretations of the music you play.