StudyWeb Award Music Music Theory Corner



Musical theory is one of my particular interests. I was lucky enough to spend three years studying with one of the world's greatest music theoreticians, Prof. Jon Gittins of York University. I also worked for him as a research assistant, writing software to test his theories on the properties of scales that can be derived from a given set of generation rules. That is probably too technical a topic to bother with here. After that, I went through the standard music theory program at the University of Illinois. While I learned a lot about such topics as musical structure and counterpoint, I discovered that much of the harmonic theory that was taught in the program was unnecessarily complicated, and in some cases inconsistent or just plain incorrect. I was able to make sense of it because I had already learned a simple, logical and consistent system of musical theory; however, I felt sorry for my fellow students who hadn't!

I don't claim to be a genius at music theory, but I have worked with one and I think I picked up a few things from him. Many people think you need to be a genius to understand theory because it is usually taught so poorly. Actually, you can go a long way with just a few simple ideas.

Traditional music actually does not use much in the way of harmonic complexity compared to, say, Stravinsky or Miles Davis. The area of most complexity is found in the melodic line and how it is treated. So this Music Theory Corner is a simple little place where just a few simple ideas can be found.

Chant MS

Available topics:

A Beginner's Guide to Modal Harmony
Standard music theory as taught today is based on what classical composers did in the 18th century. Many people are confused because traditional music doesn't seem to follow the rules of music theory. Why not? Because traditional music follows the rules that were used in the 16th century! Learn about modal harmony and suddenly everything will start making sense! The history of it is interesting too, so I've even included a little of that.


Chord Naming
Personally, I don't particularly like the idea of using chords in traditional music. The concept of chords came about in the Baroque era from the use of the basso continuo. Since traditional music embodies much pre-Baroque practice, a chord accompaniment sounds anachronistic to me. I would rather hear an accompaniment based on an independent melodic line or lines, as they used to do in the Renaissance, or maybe some drones. And the present-day accompanists I like the best, Daithi Sproule for example, do just that. It would be very difficult to explain their accompaniments in terms of chords. But nevertheless, I recognize that people do use chords in traditional music. And if you do, you might as well understand how to name them, because there is a simple and consistent method for doing so, and if everybody used it, the world would be just a little bit simpler.


Chord Functions
Now that I've brought up the subject of how to name chords, the question arises how should I choose which one to use? My introduction to chord functions gives some hints, in reference to jazz standards. (This discussion has now veered a long way away from traditional music.)


Bach's Changes
A harmonic analysis of a lute prelude by J.S. Bach, supporting my contention (which some have dared to doubt!) that Bach used some pretty hip chord changes.



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