Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Thu Apr 26 13:59:50 PDT 2012

Dear Colleagues,

I generally agree with Steve that one does not need a voluminous theory book, but my reasons may be quite different from his; I disagree that most of these books are "impressively complete" or "encyclopedic". In fact, I had many occasions to discover that small books like the ones of Tchaikovsky's  and Rimsky-Korsakov's contain much more valuable information that most of the thick volumes published in the last 30 years. 

Example: when you open Kostka/Payne's book and try to find information on any diatonic triad or a seventh chord, you will be surprised to see only a half page devoted on that chord, with almost no examples of practical application. For instance, they devote a half page to the VI chord, and this space is occupied by a single example... no exploration in four parts and in different contexts, no discussion of fine exceptions, no special melodies and basses that will help you master the VI chord in practice.

I think that is highly unprofessional. On the other hand, when I open another book, published by Professor Bentzion Eliezer in Sofia in the 1971, I find six pages on the VI chord with a detailed exploration in different contexts, and with an ample amount of melodies to harmonize - just to master the VI chord in context! This latter book is very thin -  it is only 133 pages. Rimsky's book is around 145 pages (I lost the last pages recently). The Kostka/Payne is over 600 pages. 

Of course, you will say that the Kostka/Payne book also contains chapters on form and on the XX century styles and techniques. But it does not have to - it is called "Tonal Harmony", and the real "harmony stuff" they provided is not only insufficient but also present in a manner that reveals deficiencies in many respects.

And here I am arriving at the reason that causes the discrepancy between "thickness" and professionalism. It may sound funny to you, but studying from a "thick book" leads to learning a little bit of everything and being a master of nothing. This sad fact is reflected in the nature of the undergraduate curriculum - instead of studying separately the fundamental theoretical disciplines (harmony, counterpoint, and form) - they are placed in the Procrustean bed of the I-IV theory sequence, thus limiting the boundaries of knowledge students may acquire.

This is why today the world is abundant with "great scholars" but very few of them are masters in their field. You may hold a Chair after a certain name, to have a number of praised publications, but you may fail to harmonize a melody or to play idiomatically harmonic progressions and modulations on the piano. Students feel that. 

It is logical to assume that comprehensive knowledge is a combination of theoretical and practical knowledge; it is the practical knowledge that gives you a genuine insight in the problems - when you try to harmonize a melody, you will face a number of problems whose solution will give you genuine knowledge in the field and will develop your analytical skills as well. Therefore, a good analyst is a person who has both theoretical and practical knowledge in his/her field of occupation.

Because Tchaikovsky and Rimsky were masters in their field - they lived off harmony, counterpoint and form, their books of harmony contain valuable first hand information, while the books of many others - no matter how thick and beautifully bound they are - show signs of ineptitude at different levels. But their authors are not aware of that fact! Why? Because they too studied from a "thick book" written by no master, and they were taught by a theorist who was no master either. Consequently, they did not know how to practice harmony and how to develop as creative theorists with critical thinking. Their own thick books represent a historical document of this sad situation.

Thank you,


Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
School of Music
Texas State University
601 University Drive
San Marcos, Texas 78666

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