Sharing the Warmth of Music Theory

I had a really good day yesterday. There was nothing special about it; I didn’t sleep in, and I didn’t really do anything out of the ordinary. Just relaxed and had what some of us call a “Me Day.” We need those every now and then.

Yesterday morning, I spent a good three hours at my favorite coffee shop, Panacea, where I did some journaling and worked on music theory. It was so nice to sit and write; it felt good just to write without a time limit (no hurrying so I can get to work on time), and just let my mind wander and watch.

Music theory was mostly a review. We’ve covered a lot of concepts in the last few months, but my schedule hasn’t allowed me time to really let those concepts “sink in.” I understood them well enough to do the exercises in the book, but that didn’t mean I’d learned them well enough to apply them.

So, I went through the book yesterday, went all the way back to secondary dominants up to pedal point and modulation, and reviewed. I studied the concepts side-by-side with Music for Analysis, which shows how different composers have applied the concepts I’ve been learning.

Those few hours were time well-spent. I noted, on paper, how different composers achieved resolution of things in different compositions. In the textbook, you learn that an augmented six resolves to the dominant. It was interesting to see how composers would resolve to the dominant, but would do it in roundabout and interesting ways.

Then, after taking lots and lots of notes on my observations, I went home and played some of the examples to get the different approaches into “my mind’s ear.” Played things really slowly, and, to see how something affected the "color" of the music, would substitute different things within the music (What if I replaced this Italian sixth with a German one? What if I made it something other than an augmented sixth? What if I used a diminished seventh instead of a dominant seventh?).

Finally, it was time for Awful Tune exercises. The textbook has these little exercises where a melody line is provided and the assignment is to “harmonize and write a piano arrangement for the following melody.” Typically (and I think on purpose), the melodies are awful-sounding, with all kinds of unexpected accidentals (sharps and flats). So, after I’ve worked out some basic harmonies and go to Finale Notepad to enter the music, I give them titles like, “Awful Tune VI: Borrowed Chords Exercise,” or “Awful Tune II: German Sixths Exercise.”

And do you know what? Maybe it’s because I get used to the awful tunes (or probably it's the purpose of the exercise!), but once I’ve harmonized them, they make more sense and don’t sound so awful. And once I’ve written a piano arrangement, they actually sound pretty good (to my ears). So much that I think about expanding on some of them and writing something called, “Suite: Awful Textbook-Tunes.”

Poor “Adagio Thing” didn’t get a lot of work. The more I learn about music theory, the more I realize that “Adagio Thing” has a lot of growing ahead of it. But it’s still there, keeping the back burner warm.

I’m very, very happy because Music Theory is today. I’m so glad that I was able to devote a whole day to it in preparation for today’s “class.” With this “class,” we’ll have completed the “Harmony in Common Practice” chunk of the textbook.

I’m not sure if I’m ready to move on to “Post Common-Practice Harmony” just yet. Part of me would like to spend the summer letting all of the “Common Practice” concepts sink in so that they’re as familiar to me as the rules of English grammar and punctuation.

And by “letting them sink in,” I mean studying, listening, analyzing, and, most importantly, composing.

Life is good.

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