New Metaphors for 21st Century Harmony

I’ve been dismayed by the degree to which traditional theories of harmony are tangental to the working keyboard practice of a 21st century pianist working in collaborative contexts.  A knowledge of figured bass is fantastic if you are working on the harpsichord with period repertoire, but for most pianists the kinds of harmonic thinking that underpin the repertoire they are asked to perform finds no clear expression in traditional music theory. Today I’ve been mulling on whether our metaphors aren’t the problem. Once upon a time it made perfect sense to say chords have a hierarchy, made up of the most important chord relationships (primary chords), and chords which play a complementary role (secondary chords). And once upon a time the idea of modulating really did describe the journey-like characteristics of the harmonic experience throughout a composition. But for the best part of the 20th century composers have shown remarkably little interest in modulating, and their use of chords suggests

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How hard is a piece of music?

For piano teachers working in countries with a strong examination culture (this means anywhere that is, or once was, part of the former British Empire/current Commonwealth) there is a general consensus about how hard certain pieces of piano music are.  And this general consensus revolves around an idea of ‘grading’ – that a piece of music ‘is’ Grade One, or Grade Five, or Grade Eight. No one ever talks very much about what makes a piece have Grade One-like qualities rather than the qualities of a Grade Two piece.  But, within a teaching culture where the lesson is almost entirely focussed on the exam, teachers develop an acceptance of the gradings given to pieces by the examination boards they choose to use, and this becomes the basis for intuiting a degree of difficulty for new repertoire.  If the piece ‘feels’ like Grade Four, then Grade Four it must be. The challenge to grading new repertoire is most keenly felt when grading

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