Write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow.Lawrence Clark Powell
The book to read is not the one which thinks for you, but the one which makes you think.James McCosh
A handful of books on music theory, harmony, counterpoint and notation. Talking about music can quickly get technical and depending on your background and training so far some of these will be more useful to you than others. As always, pick and choose what you think will suit you best.
Mark Harrison: Contemporary Music Theory – A Complete Harmony and Theory Method for the Pop and Jazz Musician
(Hal Leonard, 1999)
Gone are the days when reading about music theory was dry and academic. Mark Harrison’s three volumes offer a clear and engaging approach to a subject that’s really useful to know about but not always the most exciting. Whatever style of music you create, and however you put it down on the page (or screen), we’ve yet to meet a writer whose work wasn’t enriched by jumping waist-deep into some music theory. Lyricists included.
While there’s a mountain of resources on harmony in classical music, Mark Levine’s is one of the few that really nails contemporary harmony. Ostensibly an instruction book in playing jazz piano, it’s also a great introduction to harmony in popular music for all kinds of musicians. You’ll want to be able to score read and have a pretty solid understanding of music theory to make the most of this book.
(Faber & Faber, 1999)
Arnold Schoenberg was a pivotal figure in Twentieth-Century art music. And when he wasn’t playing tennis with George Gershwin or writing atonal music, he spent much of his time teaching and writing. This particular book covers traditional functional harmony and is filled with useful insights and techniques. Not for the light hearted – again, a solid grounding in music theory is necessary – but its ideas have the power to enrich the way you think about chord progressions and open up all kinds of harmonic possibilities in your work.
While original melodies can come only from the depths of a composer’s imagination, there’s no getting round the fact that there are principles on which well-balanced and well-structured melodies are based. Jack Perricone’s book explores comprehensively how these principles apply to melodic writing in popular songwriting. Some score-reading ability is helpful, but he covers enough theory and background that an extensive understanding of music theory isn’t necessary. His topics include melodic structure, melodic motifs, rhythm and how melody and harmony work together.
(W. W. Norton, 1965)
In 1725 Johann Joseph Fux wrote the Gradus Ad Parnassum, a historic treatise on the art of counterpoint: how melodic lines fit on top of each other. J. S. Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven all studied it intently. Cast as a lively and intriguing narrative between Josephus, a curious student, and Aloysius, a venerable teacher, Alfred Mann’s translation and adaptation makes it accessible to modern readers. While musical styles may have changed since 1725, the fundamental building blocks of music haven’t, and Fux’s treatise contains all kinds of principles that songwriters can use to craft their own melodic lines.
At The Song Foundry, we believe presenting your work clearly and beautifully is not only about respect for what you’ve created, it also allows whoever you put it in front of to perform it without wondering exactly what you meant by squiggle-dash-circle in bar four. Tom Gerou and Linda Lusk’s book more than covers everything that songwriters need to know to create sheet music that will be easily understood. For a more hefty and comprehensive look at music engraving there’s Elaine Gould’s definitive masterpiece Behind Bars, though it contains way more information than most writers will need.