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Walter Piston's Harmony

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(@losodo)
Eminent Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 27
Topic starter  

Sup all,

Just had a question. I'm in the middle of reading another one of David Hodge's articles (great stuff) and he mentions a book called Harmony by Walter Piston. I'm very interested in this topic but when I read descriptions about the book it seems like it's more aimed towards orchestral music (?)... but I guess music is music, eh?

So... two questions:

1) Has anyone read it?
2) Should a guitar player read it?

Thanks. 8)

First I bought it, then I paid for it.


   
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(@greybeard)
Illustrious Member
Joined: 21 years ago
Posts: 5840
 

1) Has anyone read it?
Yes, some of it. It is very "dry" and not written to be enjoyed. I found some of his American English very hard to understand.

2) Should a guitar player read it?
That depends. If you are very determined to learn theory and write multiple part harmony, then probably - it seems to be regarded as the standard by which other books are measured.
Having been, originally, written in the 40s (1947?), it was written for a completely different type of band construction than is typical today. Although it has been revised (by people other than Piston), the basic concept and writing style has not changed - if it has changed, stay away from the early editions, they must be written something akin to Sanskrit! Mine comes from the 60's or 70's.

I started with nothing - and I've still got most of it left.
Did you know that the word "gullible" is not in any dictionary?
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(@losodo)
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Joined: 18 years ago
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Topic starter  

Ah.

So, on that note, is there any academic treatments on harmony that you would recommend, perhaps more modern/usable by guitar players?

First I bought it, then I paid for it.


   
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(@kingpatzer)
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Joined: 19 years ago
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Don't for a minute think that Piston's book is not "usable" by guitarists, just because it's older and dry.

It is a standard theory text for all musicians for a very very good reason.

If you want an academic treatment of theory, Piston is the place to start.

"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side." -- HST


   
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(@dsparling)
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Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 289
 

When I was in music school, we used all the Piston books: Harmony, Counterpoint, and Orchestration.

At one time our music department used the Ottman books (Beginning Harmony, Advanced Harmony) which I though were a little easier to read. Last time I checked, the local conservatory uses Tonal Harmony by Kostka (I have an older edition of that book...also easy to read, though the older edition I have suffered from several typos). Never the less, the Piston book is a classic, and older editions can be picked up fairly cheaply.

There are several theory books written for the modern/pop/jazz musician, though I couldn't recommened any specifically (only in that I haven't really read any - well, I would recommened Jazz Theory by Mark Levine). This forum's theory guru and frequent poster (Noteboat) has written a theory book specfically for guitarist (see the top sticky thread in this forum), though I've not seen it myself...it comes highly recommeneed!

http://www.dougsparling.com/
http://www.300monks.com/store/products.php?cat=59
http://www.myspace.com/dougsparling
https://www.guitarnoise.com/author/dougsparling/


   
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(@noteboat)
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Joined: 21 years ago
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Like Doug, I used all Piston's books in school. They weren't the only books we used; Piston left some gaps in counterpoint and orchestration, that can be filled in by Fux, Rimsky-Korsakov, etc.

But Harmony is a classic, and a standard reference. Other books I used, like Tischler's "Practical Harmony" or Alchin's "Applied Harmony" cover exactly the same ground as Piston.... but less thoroughly. If your study of harmony is confined to 'common practice' (all of music from roughly 1600-1910, plus a fair amount of what came after), you find it explained in Piston.

Value to a guitarist? Well, that depends. It is written from an orchestral standpoint, because that's where harmony comes from - it's an analysis of how composers use chords in what's called 'homophonic' composition. That means the compositions can be viewed as a series of chords.

Because guitars also use sets of chords, concepts of tension/release, harmonic extension, etc. can be directly applied. I'd guess that's one quarter of Piston's book overall. If that's the limit of your interest, other books get you there more directly.

If you play classical fingerstyle, where you are moving individual voices, more of it comes into play - various decorations and appogiatura can be applied to the guitar, and having knowledge of how they affect (or don't affect) the underlying harmony can be useful.

Where the orchestral approach leaves the guitarist struggling is in the attention to inversions. Piston's work, like all others I've seen on harmony, does not use direct musical examples - it uses piano reductions of orchestral scores. That means the roughly seven-octave range of the orchesta is shrunk to about half that. And since most of the 'oomph' of an orchestra comes from instruments playing or doubling the lower lines, the analysis of orchestral scores involves the study of chord inversions: which note is on the bottom?

For a guitarist, the note that's on the bottom, or the individual movement of inner voices, isn't as important (at least in my opinion) as the one that's on the top. So a lot of the practical application of harmony is sort of reversed for the guitar, and voice leading is a higher priority... you'll want to delve into guitar-oriented books (Greene's "Chord Chemistry", the Johnny Smith method, Bay's "Melody Chords" etc.) to really unlock the ideas contained in Piston from a top-down approach. While these are all great books on how to get certain voice movements, they're short on the whys of them - so Piston makes a nice accompaniment for serious study.

As far as my book goes, it's about basic theory - rhythms, scales, intervals, chord structure. Piston's really starts where mine leaves off.

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL


   
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(@losodo)
Eminent Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 27
Topic starter  

Hmm... thanks for the insight everbody.

I'm gonna think on it for a bit.

I asked about the Piston book because I'm looking for a more advanced treatment of music theory. I'm drowning in beginner books, although I found all of them useful and have learned much from them.

I find that almost every guitar book I have read only covers the basics. Of course, once you have a solid understanding of basic theory it's not too difficult to make cool sounding tunes. Don't get me wrong, I don't have tons of books, maybe 5 or 6, but none of them explain harmony and it's principles... "Here's some chords, here's some scales, these chords go with these scales, here is a list of intervals, thanks for reading this book".

I need more than this. I need a theory of harmony... a scientific approach to it's principles. It looks like Piston is the way to go. If they use Piston in music schools then I guess it's a pretty obvious choice.

Thanks again. 8)

First I bought it, then I paid for it.


   
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(@noteboat)
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I'm not sure a 'theory of harmony' book exists, really.

Music (at least Western music) has developed organically, and everything starts with a melody. Sing the melody against a pedal point, you discover intervals. Use those intervals to harmonize a moving voice and you get two moving voices - the start of polyphony. Add a third voice and you discover chords. But even when you're working with chords, it's not about chords - it's about the melodies that create them.

So harmony isn't really the analysis of chords and scales. Since you start with a melody, the scale is a given. The chords are a natural result of the scale, plus any 'outside' chords that creep in from chromatic alterations in the melodies.

And since chords in classical music happen as a result of the melodies, the analysis isn't really 'chord progression' - it's more 'progression of a chord'. For example, having a chromatic alterations in a couple of voices can give you a bII chord (in harmony, it's called the 'Neopolitan sixth'). Harmony really says 'when your melody has you landing on this dissonance, most composers go to V, but here's a Mozart piece that went to I, and here's a Schumann piece that went to II, and here's a Chopin piece where he treats it as a IV of VI modulation....

It's about possibilities rather than formula.

If your interest is in the interaction of chords and scales, I'd recommend a good book on jazz instead, like Mark Levine's Jazz Theory Book. There are two key differences between classical theory and jazz theory:

First, classical harmony is about progressing a chord; jazz harmony is about a chord progression. If you think of a chord progression as the skeleton of music, classical harmony hands you 200-odd bones with some assembly required; jazz harmony gives you a stick figure. One is pretty complete, but it takes a lot of work to use it... the other is truly the 'bare bones', but gives you an immediate sense of a 'whole' that you add to as your skills increase.

Second, since classical music starts with melody, the scale is the given and chords are the result. Jazz does the opposite, and starts with the chords: here are the chords, and here's what goes with them.

Guitar teacher offering lessons in Plainfield IL


   
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