Stephen Jablonsky jablonsky at optimum.net
Wed Apr 17 13:47:55 PDT 2013

Esteemed Colleagues,

As someone who has taught music theory for almost half a century I am wondering about your feelings in regard to including lead sheet notation in our instructional practice. A quick survey of the best-selling theory textbooks reveals that, almost to a man, none of these authors ever identifies a chord progression by chord name and function. The myriad musical fragments that litter these texts only contain figured bass or chord numbers, never chord names. The students who come to our school have a great deal of difficulty naming chords, especially in treble/bass piano notation; orchestral scores are usually beyond their capabilities. 

I am always amused when I ask my upper level students to analyze a composition in class (I only do complete pieces because analyzing fragments is worthless in my opinion) and they immediately begin to write chord numbers. Of course I stop them immediately and ask them to tell me how many measures there are in the piece to give them a sense of proportion. I then ask them to identify cadences so we know where the points of arrival are located and how they affect the ongoing flow of the music. After that, they need to name the chords and identify to non-harmonic tones. Finally, we get to chord function. I have always felt it was better to measure the canvas before getting lost in the details.

Those of you who have struggled to teach theory know how difficult it is for beginners to separate the chord and non-chord tones in a wide variety of textures, and to discern the true harmonic rhythm. Students who were taught using only chorales think that every piece ever written changes chords every quarter note (OY!). 

The craft of musical analysis consists of two activities: labeling and interpretation. If the labeling component does not include the correct naming of chords then everything else sits on a weak foundation. Is it possible that because lead sheet is associated with popular music and jazz that it is excluded from “classical” textbooks because of some ill-conceived prejudice or foolish tradition?

Before I retire, I would love to see one textbook tell me the names of the chords in Chopin’s E minor Prelude before attempting reduce it to some fancy chart or graph.

Dr. Stephen Jablonsky, Ph.D.
Music Department Chair
The City College of New York
Shepard Hall Room 72
New York NY 10031
(212) 650-7663
music at ccny.cuny.edu

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