The Etude
Name the Composer . Etude Magazine Covers . Etude Magazine Ads & Images . Selected Etude Magazine Stories . About

Advice to the Student of Harmony.


Perception of Tone-relations Through the Eye.

Every teacher of harmony knows—and doubtless the majority of advanced students have also discovered—how difficult, how nearly impossible, it is to achieve positive results and derive real practical benefit from the study of harmony, before the pupil has learned to “hear with his eyes”; that is, has acquired the faculty of perceiving the effect of the tones on the page before him, and their relations and movements, without the necessity of first playing them upon the pianoforte. So obvious is the impediment which such a lack of subjective tone-perception interposes, and the inadequacy and awkwardness of the appeal to the key-board is so thoroughly appreciated by the unfortunate “tone-blind” pupils, that it may be seriously questioned whether any progress in harmonic knowledge is possible before this faculty has been acquired; whether subjective tone-perception (call it “sight-reading,” “hearing with the eyes,” or what you will) be not the first and most vital condition of successful harmonic study. My experience has forced the belief upon me that this is the case; and that the efforts of both student and teacher should be concentrated from the very start upon the acquirement and development of this faculty. Without it, the pupil is working, literally, in the dark, with the prospect of even less than the ordinary fisherman’s luck; without it, all his mental labor is purely arithmetical calculation, as far from real musical thought as the clicking of a typewriter is from vital speech. With it, every page of music is open to him.

What has led to some mistrust of its value is the fact that studies in harmony may be prosecuted, and often enough are, with a degree of apparent success, by tone-blind pupils, simply by dint of close attention to the given rules. But,—quite aside from the incredibly disproportionate waste of mental energy which this close attention to the rules involves, and aside from the necessity of multiplying the rules almost infinitely, which this dependence creates and abets,—such tone-blind pupils are constantly mistaking the symbol for the thing itself; constantly confounding letters with tones and intervals with tone-relations; constantly, and with increasing tenacity of habit, thinking of music as spots upon the page arranged in a kind of geometric relation to each other, instead of perceiving them as living sounds, and detecting a real and impressive musical meaning behind the array of signs and characters which mean nothing, truly, but ink-spots, unless their vital equivalents have been grasped and held.

It is somewhat curious that the ability to realize the effect (location and relations) of a group of tones, without the aid of the external ear, should be so rare, and, usually, so difficult to acquire. And it would be hard to frame a reasonable excuse for its lack, that did not inculpate those intrusted with the early musical training of the prospective musical artist. Does anyone who has learned to read look blankly upon a printed or written word, as a mere combination of letter-characters, whose meaning he cannot grasp until it has been spoken Does not every reader perceive the full meaning, not only of one word, but of a whole sentence, the moment his eye has scanned it, without first having to read it aloud! It appears safe to conclude that if the child were taught to “read music” as early, as rationally, and as thoroughly as all are taught to read books, he must, as a matter of course, comprehend the musical effect and significance, not only of one chord, but of the entire phrase, by simply scanning it as readily as we absorb the meaning of a printed word or sentence in the mother- tongue without the aid of the ear?

It must be admitted that there is one very important difference between the task of reading music and reading a printed sentence with the eye alone, namely: the reader of a book traces but one line at a time, whereas the music reader must scan three or four (often more), lines, or voices, simultaneously, and determine their collective meaning. To be sure, the musical lines constitute together one unit of meaning, and not an unintelligible jumble such as would result from hearing, or trying to hear, as many sentences of words together. But the chief difficulty of reading a musical phrase with the eye rests in this circumstance, no doubt. It is a rare occurrence, in my practice, to find that a pupil cannot grasp the effect of a single part,—the given melody alone, for instance; while even the more skillful readers of this ilk betray often great difficulty in perceiving the collective effect of two associated parts, and confess their entire inability to hear three or more.

To such, and to the student of harmony in general, I would offer the following advice:

First of all, do not yield to the impression that you cannot learn to “hear with your eyes.” If you can recall, mentally, the sound of any written word, the sound of any voice you have recently heard, any sound in nature with which you are familiar (as of course you can) then you can surely recall and perceive mentally the effect of a tone which the written note symbolizes. If you claim you cannot, you are either yielding to natural and pardonable self-deception, or you really do not know “one note from another” and never will. If the latter be manifestly true, give up the study of music. If, however, you can hear the least musical effect when reminded of it by a musical character, then you shall in time hear everything,—if you will make the necessary mental effort. When you say, I cannot, I am tempted to rejoin, you are mistaken—you will not!

The endeavor thus to conceive the relation of one tone to another from the written notes may call forth, at first, an almost superhuman effort of mental concentration. Begin with a task that is perfectly easy, and you may escape the need of such severe effort altogether; take two notes in succession, the first two of your given melody. Strike the first one on the pianoforte, and then listen for the next. If you cannot, really cannot, find its location, with all your mental might (be careful how you acknowledge yourself thus utterly routed!), then strike it; play the two in their succession,—and then gaze upon the notes and recollect how they sounded; let your memory thus aid you, for several seconds. Proceed in the same manner from tone to tone throughout the melody. After reaching its end, see if you can recall it, from the beginning, without playing it. If not, try again, and again; take, the second time, three or four successive tones at once.

Do not make this experiment with any melody that changes the key; take only such as remain in the same key throughout. For the mariner’s compass of the music reader is the natural scale; from this all his mental bearings must be taken; I have yet to encounter a “musical” student who could not recall the effect of the major scale, ascending and descending. The first efforts should be directed to dissecting this scale, until you are able to recall the location of each separate scale-step, after the key-note has been given. Adopt this standard, and no other, in your first essays to hear tones with your eyes; then, knowing which step you are to hear,—the key-note always being given,—why should you not be able to hear it?

Do not undertake to hear more than one voice (part) at a time. After mentally reading the soprano of your earliest exercises in 4-part writing, try to hear the bass alone, then the alto alone, and finally the tenor.

When you feel ready to begin the mental association of written voices, take soprano and alto together. About this much might be said; from many possible methods of procedure individual pupils will find it wise to discover and adopt that which best suits their special habit of mental concentration. One way is to regard the two simultaneous tones (on each beat) as successive; first locate the soprano tone, and then imagine the effect of the alto tone below it; if they are quarter-notes, sing them (mentally) as two successive eighth-notes; then draw them together and hear them as one sound. Another way is: after grasping the first beat of alto and soprano together, try to conceive and follow the movement of each. For instance, if the first beat be E/C and the next G/B, endeavor to trace the course of E up into G, and of C down into B; this is the best method, the only true one. Again, if it be at first impossible to form the mental concept, play the intervals successively, and identify your lingering memory of how they sounded with the notes that represent them.

After succeeding with these two voices, try to hear soprano and bass; then other pairs. In time, it will be possible to hear three, and then all four. This is certain. It depends solely upon the quality and persistence of mental concentration. I repeat, if you do not learn thus to hear with your eyes, it is solely because you will not.

Let every effort be guided by your concept of the natural major scale, during the first studies, which must be confined to major. And use the key-board in the manner suggested, if absolutely necessary,—for awhile.

Not until considerable (almost absolute) proficiency has been achieved in reading major melodies and phrases may such in minor be taken up,—one voice at a time. Here, again, acquire an absolutely clear concept of the minor scale, and make all mental calculations from that concept.

After this, melodies with modulations, and with embellishing tones, will be found more easily conquerable.

Upon two things great stress must be laid: 1. Absolute silence must prevail where harmony exercises are being written; only then is the mental perception of the tones possible. 2. Never write a note without hearing the tone for w7hich it stands; do not, under any temptation, pen a new note without having heard the preceding one; this should not be difficult, for only one note at a time can be written.

Said a teacher, ” This pupil is as hard as flint; you can not get any fire into her playing.” This may be your fault, dear teacher. May be there is no fine steel in your own makeup, or perhaps you are only soft iron, unfit to draw fire from a flint.

<< Harpists In Demand     Why We Are Not More Musical. >>

Monthly Archives


You are reading Advice to the Student of Harmony. from the March, 1900 issue of The Etude Magazine.

Harpists In Demand is the previous story in The Etude

Why We Are Not More Musical. is the next entry in The Etude.

The Publisher of The Etude Will Supply Anything In Music