David Pacun


Many of us have probably faced something like the following situation: after two years of course work, a good, knowledgeable student panics when asked to describe harmonic and tonal features in a relatively simple but real piece of music, such as the opening of the first movement of Haydn's Piano Sonata in G Major. Absent a set of leading questions and clues as to what to look and listen for ("What is the harmony in m. 2?" "What key does Haydn modulate to in m. 23 and how?"), the student wobbles and shakes on what was the terra firma of harmony and voice-leading. Surface features confuse: "Don't we modulate to E minor in m. 18?" "How do you figure out the harmony in m. 7? Is that a ii or V chord?"In such cases, students undoubtedly feel if as the rug has been suddenly pulled from underneath them. Despite their considerable abstract and tactile knowledge of chords, Roman numerals, and voice-leading, they have no quick means to grasp what is happening harmonically in a piece of music. In the common parlance, they miss the forest for the trees. Recent theory texts, though impressive in their own right, do little to ameliorate the situation. Most authors divide their time between detailed voice-leading rules, such as doublings and resolution of tendency tones, and larger, Schenkerian-based issues, such as prolongation and middle ground voice-leading structures. Both approaches are critical to understanding tonal music, yet neither specifically addresses the issue at hand. In a recent paper, John Buccheri has proposed one solution to this problem based upon teaching students to quickly identify key area and succession. While there is much to Buccheri's elegant and convincing method, it may not enable students to fill the gap between knowing a work's key structure and understanding its local harmony. Hence, although we devote much energy to specific matters (doublings, voice-leading motions) and large-scale concerns (structural harmonies), we often dedicate little time to showing students how to apply these techniques and concepts outside of the classroom.