My 2 cents on writing music and everything that goes on around it.

Why learn harmony and counterpoint? The relevance of voice-leading training to writing contemporary music 21 Apr 2015
Often I get enquiries from students interested in learning more about writing music who feel a need to clarify some doubts at the beginning. A lot of people come to me from a self-taught perspective, and make or record music on computers, and the immediacy of that medium can make it hard to see the value of in-depth training over a prolonged period of time.

Below is an exchange I had with Jose, who is now studying four-part harmony with me. I think it throws up some fascinating questions about how to approach learning music in this day and age.

I am after being able to write short film style pieces in a logical manner. I just am not too sure that traditional rules apply to contemporary music. This is where a large part of my frustration came whilst attempting to study traditional counterpoint in the past.”

The first thing to be clear about is what exactly four-part harmony and counterpoint training are trying to teach us. It seems that you are confused by the fact that you have come across music which doesn't seem to follow the guidelines used in the training but that sounds appealing to you. You must be asking yourself what it is about this music that makes it pleasant or attractive and how it can be understood.

Voice-leading and harmony

The central technique that is practiced from various angles in harmony and counterpoint training is that of voice-leading. Put simply, voice-leading is the skill of finding elegant ways of moving voices on from note to note, whether there is one voice only or whether there are multiple voices combining in a tight (harmony) or loose (counterpoint) rhythmical structure.

Behind most popular music, jazz and film music (as well as most classical music apart from some 20th century avant-garde styles) lie a relatively small number of universal chord sequences. These sequences each have their own emotional structure. Getting to grips with how exactly each step in these sequences makes us feel and, most importantly, why, is the key insight to be gained from practicing voice-leading. This is because chords are nothing without their constituent parts: between two and five/six intervals stacked up, created by individual notes, whose movements determine what feelings are evoked.

Voice-leading and orchestration

So voice-leading in harmony helps us understand and be able to control the underlying narrative in a musical piece. Counterpoint also trains voice-leading, but from a different point of view, where maximum (melodic) independence is sought in a coherent musical whole. The thinking is less block-like and more along horizontal lines, which makes this discipline the perfect training ground for melodic writing and writing for textures that are made up of more than just two elements.

Most popular music, despite its apparent complexity, consists of only two conceptual elements: 1) a bassline (with optional shadowing chords) and 2) a topline melody (with sometimes shadowing harmonies). Everything else is usually just colouring in of those basic elements. But in any writing for large ensemble (such as a chamber or symphony orchestra, or a swing band) considerations of texture become really important, even before looking into orchestration. My orchestration professor John Pickard used to say that "good counterpoint is good orchestration".

You mention writing film style pieces. Writing for film draws on the Western orchestral tradition - nowadays the results are often simplified versions of traditional classical styles, mixed with influences from electronic, pop and folk music. Even if somebody were to bash out a few chords on a guitar that they liked, there is simply no way of explaining how to orchestrate these chords successfully and elegantly onto a five-part string section without reference to voice-leading considerations, let alone a whole orchestra with woodwind, brass etc. That's because even if the macro structure of the piece of music "breaks the rules" (more on this in a moment), the realisation of this macro-structure in the different sections of your ensemble still requires intimate familiarity with voice-leading.

"Breaking the rules" or "Using the rules from a different angle"?

 A few comments on breaking the rules: voice-leading training often tells us to observe certain rules, such as the avoidance of parallel fifths/octaves. On first sight it seems confusing when we then come across music that doesn't observe this rule but still remains pleasing and interesting. The key here is that usually, this music is pleasing to us precisely because it breaks the rules. I used to listen to a lot of rock and metal as a kid, which is full of parallel fifths and octaves (i.e. barre power chords on guitars and bass). The genre of hard rock derives its very nature from these harsh-sounding voice-leading violations - in the same way that some hard techno/EDM does as well. The harshness, so assiduously avoided in 17th century church music, here becomes the point of the exercise in order to convey certain feelings of aggression and rebellion.

These and countless other examples show that voice-leading principles are not made up out of thin air - they are based on innate psychological responses to certain changes in pitch. We can learn to unravel and be able to access these principles consciously in a journey of guided self-discovery. Once we're familiar with these innate principles, any music we listen to or read can be made sense of in reference to them.
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