Harmonic Analysis

Analyses of individual works for Classical Guitar and general discussions on analysis. Normal forum copyright rules apply.

Harmonic Analysis

Post by cowboyinaf » Sun Feb 22, 2015 7:15 pm

I've been studying Martha Masters wonderful book 'Reaching the Next Level'. In the 1st section, Developing Critical Listening Skills, she exhorts the musician to have a good understanding of the 'basic form of the piece, harmonic structure, it's style period and traits of the composer'.

I can figure most of that, to a certain level, but I find the 'harmonic structure' part a bit overwhelming for many of the pieces in the normal repertoire. If the piece is a simple modern arrangement of contemporary music, the harmonic structure is usually not too difficult to keep in mind. But with a piece, for instance, such as Bach's Air on a G String, well, I don't see or hear it. The harmonic structure changes constantly, jumps to different keys within phrases, it's --- overwhelming.

So my question is, so people do that? And if so, are you thinking as you play in terms of moveable key, i.e. I, iv, V, etc. or do you think C, F G, etc? I can't seem to get a handle on playing these more sophisticated pieces as though I understand the harmonic structures. Am I making too much of this?

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Re: Harmonic Analysis

Post by Jstanley01 » Sun Feb 22, 2015 8:40 pm

Harmonic analysis? Whaddaya think this is, a jazz site? Classical players, just give us the music and forget about it. /sarc

On a more serious note, haha, I'm leery of exhortations masquerading as pedagogy.

Theory is not worth studying detached from practical application, without which it represents mere information suspended in midair. Take the E-G-B-D-F lines and F-A-C-E spaces of the treble cleff, what use is learning the notes on the staff independently of hunting for those notes our instrument of choice as players, and hence grounding the information in practice? None, I'd say. And so on from there.

A good teacher will not exhort, so much, as incorporate theory into the student's course of study in a graded manner which is illustrated by the student's expanding repertoire, making use of a theory method such as James McFadden's Fretboard Harmony (pdf).

...with the goal, I would add, of the student being able to improvise and compose, which two skills are the benchmarks of a grasp of theory, whether intuitive or academic...
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Christopher Freitag
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Re: Harmonic Analysis

Post by Christopher Freitag » Sun Feb 22, 2015 8:52 pm

Studying harmony can be useful in shaping an interpretation; it can help you to identify phrases and to chart the direction, point of arrival, and so forth. It won't do much for you in shorter works..the phrases in a lot of works we play are short, regular, and easy to distinguish. But in longer works (a sonata by Sor or Giuliani, a movement of Bach), it can be really useful. The Bach example you cite is a good case in point: it becomes less overwhelming when you can identify the harmonic sequences and internal cadences so that it doesn't seem like one long and continuous phrase.

That being said, you don't have to get too deep into such analysis to find it helpful. Start with simple things like learning to identify the different types of cadence, or recognizing pivot chords (chords that allow for easy modulation by playing a functional role in two different keys).
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Larry McDonald
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Re: Harmonic Analysis

Post by Larry McDonald » Mon Feb 23, 2015 3:15 pm

Bach probably didn't know what a I or a V chord was (this was published by a little known, but irritating, organist/composer named Rameau in provincial France in the 1730's). Roman numeral analysis, while still valuable, can only tell us so much about Bach since he most likely didn't think this way. It is better to look at his music from a contrapuntal perspective, I think, and do what Christopher Freitag recommends in the preceding post. If you want to try to understand Bach on a deeper level, take the time to learn about voice-leading. It will change the way you play Bach. And Sor.
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Re: Harmonic Analysis

Post by Alicia » Mon Feb 23, 2015 3:21 pm

I always know what key I'm playing in (even when it changes key) and am aware of chords I, IV and V (and V7), and their names withing the key I'm playing in. This enables me to change the fingering as necessary to accommodate my reach, and in general, ensures I play the right notes.

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Re: Harmonic Analysis

Post by Molto legato » Tue Feb 24, 2015 10:57 am

I make it a point to know which key/chords are being used or implied. As for C F G or I IV V etc.. probably a mix of both. As for Bach I learned by studying 4 part chorales.


Re: Harmonic Analysis

Post by cowboyinaf » Tue Feb 24, 2015 4:56 pm

What a delightful forum this is! To ask a question and come away with 5 ways of approaching the issue and a 200 + page thesis to read! You folks go beyond helpful, into the realm of inspiration!

Thanks Jstanley01 . I will certainly start working through Mr. McFadden's book and I can see already how helpful it will be. I've had a spotty education. I left music school after 3 years to respond to the siren call of the beaches and parties in San Diego. Lo, these many years ago. So, I've got an inkling, but not a thorough knowledge of the theory and analysis and perhaps (probably) that's where my trouble lies. Which you pegged. Thanks! I would add though, that 'exhort' was my term, certainly not Ms. Masters, and her book is designed for people who've probably already had substantial exposure to one sort of pedagogy or another. And you are actually tracking her advice, as she expands later with reference to several guitar focused theory books she says to study, as well as books on period interpretation. But I like your phrase "I'm leery of exhortations masquerading as pedagogy" so much I may have to steal it, as I can see it has application way broader than within music theory!

And Chris, those anchors of cadences and pivot chords sound like a good place to start. I'll re-examine the Air for those, and see if that doesn't at least give me a better feel for playing with the analysis in mind. Thank you!

Larry, you reminded me that I've read the same about Bach's composition (somewhere). Or perhaps I heard it on a lecture. That he thought in terms of a contrapuntal dialogue, which makes sense. I've not heard the term voice-leading, so you've given me another thing to find and examine! Thanks

Alica & Molto, your advice seems similar to Chris's. Thanks I'll try to keep key in mind, too. It's good to see a consistency in the responses here.

Once again thanks everybody! Now to work!

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Re: Harmonic Analysis

Post by johnhall » Thu Feb 26, 2015 5:37 pm

Harmonic analysis for me is a way of gaining insight into the minds of the most gifted composers. Whether or not they thought in analytical terms (which I figure they didn't) when composing is insignificant. The knowledge you acquire through this study is the most important thing; in terms of your understanding of the music for performance or even more importantly for your understanding of musical structure when composing or arranging. I don't know about you but I never would have just stumbled upon certain harmonic structures and relationships. Through the analytical study of the works of the masters we can at least hope to attain and build upon their knowledge.


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