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Are rules necessary?

A student said to me recently that he felt he "needed to know harmony" in order to improvise.

My first reaction was one of alarm, as my own harmonic knowledge feels somewhat piecemeal, the result of O and A-level work and a few classes at the RAM some years ago. Last year I became the proud owner of a book of a Guide to Practical Harmony by the composer Tchaikovsky, who (unbeknown to me) was professor of harmony at the Moscow Conservatory. It must be said, of course, that any thoughts on harmony by a musician of this standing must be worth something; yet, I have to confess that I struggle with the style in which information is usually communicated in music-theory text books, and this one is no exception. 

The image on the left is an example. I don't mean to overly-criticise Tchaikovsky for a style of pedagogy which I'm starting to recognise is very characteristic of the 19th century, emerging and developing alongside the new institutions - the conservatoires and academies of many principal cities in Europe.( Such institutions were specifically orientated towards tutoring the musically unaware, and in the effort to communicate essentials about 'art music' in contrast to all other folk or everyday types of music, pedagogy frequently takes a hectoring and diactic tone.) Actually Tchaikovsky's tone is quite gentle: for example, in discussing sequences of 7th-chords (see below): "However smoothly we lead the harmonic progressions in these sequences, jumps are unavoidable." or "Now, where so many strongly dissonant chords follow in close succession, it should certainly be our aim so completely to fuse them together, that not a single jump occurs."

The problem for me is the form that Tchaikovsky's (and other harmony treatise writers') knowledge takes. This kind of distillation (of a personal and rich experience in music) into formulas and rules makes the knowledge very difficult to use. How are we to construct imaginative, expressive music with such constructs? Do we start with the rules, and try to add music to them, or do we start with our imagination and check this against the rules?

I was reminded of this problem by something I read today about the presence of rules in language learning: 'Because the particular language in question involves some selection from a set of options on how sentence structure can be built, the verb just cannot go anywhere else. It seems unnecessary to capture this idea in the form of a rule. You do not need a rule to determine where water exits a bathtub. Things (the laws of physics) are set up so it can only go out one of two ways, past the plug and down the drain or by overflowing. In the same way, a verb is prevented from going anywhere but its one position. There is no other place for it to go.'

I am not alone in finding theoretical knowledge about music difficult to digest and to use, and the fact that it tends to bypass the existing intuitive musical knowledge and awareness of the student. What is the solution? One option of course is to throw away the rules, and much experimental and valuable work is done by adopting this approach. However, the fact remains, that if we want to improvise a certain style or genre of music, there are ways of making this music recognisable - as a genre or style; ways of doing things that could be called rules or principles. Difficulties arise then, for me, in a didactic, moral ('woe to you if you break the RULE') approach to teaching music. After all, rules or principles could easily be understood more simply as 'ways of doing' - an approach typified in the 18th century partimenti school of musical construction over figured bass, (see Robert Gjerdigen's resouceful website for everything about partimenti). This school of keyboard instruction, celebrated in Naples, taught harmony and counterpoint with as little theory as possible, in a hands on, practical approach - everything shown by a more experienced tutor or master and copied by a less experienced student. Such an approach has resonance throughout music history - think of J.S.Bach, surrounded by family members as tutors in a musically-saturated environment - until the 19th century, when attitudes about the elevated status of music began to supercede musical practice. 

Of course, some of the problems lie in codifying knowledge into book form, rather than in person to person communication. But still, many of our problems I believe, lie in treating subjects such as harmony and counterpoint as starting with rules rather than intuition, rather than the converse. This issue arises particularly acutely when learning to improvise. I have found with my own development that I often begin with the satisfying of (dimly understood) rules, before engaging my intuition - a process I am determined to reverse!

Perhaps one solution is to adopt a 'fuzzy' approach to rules as explained by the same author (M.A. Sharwood-Smith) as I quoted earlier: 'Some rules are categorical ... Others are expressed in terms of tendency - these may be termed fuzzy rules: 'P tends to include Q', or 'in situation X it is most usual to do Y'. Such an approach is much more suitable to musical 'rules' or procedures, as it's actually very difficult to imagine a single rule in music that can't regularly be broken. To express, search for and learn musical connections and constructs in terms of tendencies, or situations where it is most usual to do, clearly exist in abundance and almost serves as a useful definition of 'rules' in music. I'm also reminded by these terms of the kind of spoken language used by teachers when they are being helpful rather domineering ;-).

M.A.Sharwood-Smith (1994). The Unruly World of Language. In Nick Ellis (Ed.) Implicit and Explicit Learning of Languages pp 33-43. GB: Academic Press Ltd.

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