“Far from appearing universal, Bach’s audacious synthesis of all available culture- with Germany at its center – was not likely to have pleased many of his contemporaries, not even most Germans. Perhaps not surprisingly, he was canonised as representing pure order only after the semiotic codes on which his semiotic strategies had relied and their accompanying social contracts had become inactive. Universality was achieved only at the expense of specific, concretely articulated meaning. “

Talking Politics During Bach Year p55 Music and Society.


What does it means to be rigorous when studying music at A-level? To what extent is an understanding of Bach’s harmonic approach needed for a rigorous music education? What is lost in neglecting Bach and what might be lost in keeping Bach in the curriculum?

In considering this I look to Dizzee Rascal, Rober Walser, Susan McClary, Christopher Small and the recent discussion of Bach and harmony in teachtalkmusic.

Recently I read about Dizzee Rascal’s music teacher and how Dizzee developed musically. His teacher notes:

Dylan could string a complex rhythmic pattern together in 20-30 minutes, and then be quite happy to spend a week refining and editing.


He talks about how:


He could get information down very quickly, but what was most unusual was he would then spend a lot of time refining it. A lot of youngsters wanted to create music, but weren’t as interested in that total refinement of a sound.


Dizzee Rascal shows that the creation of a loop and beat is a process that takes time, knowledge and skill. He could improvise and get things down in minutes but at the same time he would need to spend weeks refining his work.

Dizzee himself talks about how:

As soon as I heard that riff I gravitated to it, because I liked rock, I liked heavy metal [like] Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana and Iron Maiden even before I liked hip-hop. I loved to see the mosh pits, I think MTV 1994 through 96, and the grunge era. That was my thing.


It might be that Dizzee Rascal is a genius in his ability to put down intricate beats in minutes and then have the skill and creativity to develop and refine these ideas. He is also able to take disparate styles and forms and blend them into his own unique style. It might be that his approach is not a million miles away from Bach’s. In Music and Society Susan McClary argues that Bach was not a composer who represented universal truths of harmony but in fact someone who was able to blend the various semiotic codes of French and Italian approaches to composition into his own unique style. Bach’s specific and creative appropriation of the music around him has become sacrificed at the altar of universality.


Dizzee Rascal is not considered a universal voice of music. It seems obvious that his music making is a specific and concrete response to the many and various styles around him. It seems obvious that his music is born from the culture and society that surrounds him. Maybe in decades to come his specific and particular adoption of styles and his musical response to our world will seem less obvious, controversial and challenging and all we will see is the voice of a musical genius. It might be that we see in him an Artist that made the rules for creating great grooves from which we all can learn.


As we listen to many contemporary forms of music – such as Grime – we begin to realise that harmony isn’t the centre of music as sometimes we can assume. Harmony isn’t the essence, core or underpinning of great music – it can be and indeed often is marginal. It could be that harmony is less important than we think. We might wonder if classical music any longer lays claim to authority in explaining and making sense of our lives in n these times when there is such diversity of musics.

Indeed writers such as Christopher Small argue:” by any reasonable reckoning of the functioning of music in human life, the Afro-American tradition is the major music of the West in the twentieth century.” He argues, “ Rhythm is to the African musician what harmony is to the European.”  His view is that the significance of music lies not in the music itself. The questions are not – what does this work mean – but what does this performance mean in this particular place and time and by this particular people.

He argues that harmony is not a central aspect of Afro –American music making: ”harmony is only a kind of underpinning for what really interest him, which is the melodic and rhythmic invention, as well as the inflection of vocal and instrumental sound.”


If this is true what implications might it have for the study of music at A level? Is it enough to consider that a rigorous education means the study of harmony? And what do we make of Small’s idea that actually it is the groove that represents the importance of music and not harmony? If we consider music as a cultural practice – the value of music lies not in the notes but in its value to us and in our relationship with we make with music when creating it.

Robert Walser discusses Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” He shows through a close analysis of the rhythms and rhymes a complexity comparable to the complexity of the harmony of Bach chorales.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 22.16.40



In discussing this groove he notes:

  • How the quaver kick drum from the first beat is used in the groove to push against the metre by being placed a semiquaver ahead of the pulse in its repetition.
  • And how the snare drum whilst appearing to be a simple reinforcement of beat 2 and 4 actually contains different sounds, layers of pitches and variations of the stereo field.
  • How cymbal and percussion strengthen the groove at the 8th note level whist providing their own accents and timbres.
  • How the bass is both reinforcing the groove and playing with the central rhythm and how it indicates the main tonal centre but is heard in counterpoint to other synth sounds that create a certain tension with the bass and an alternative tonal centre.
  • How the rhythm guitar adds a rhythmic counterpoint at the 16th level of 3 3 3 3 4
  • How other vocal sounds and inflections to pitches add further complexities to the groove

In short we see how rhythm and timbre supplant harmonic interest with a complexity of their own. A complexity that is not obvious until you start to analyse and pull it apart. Of course what music is deemed complex enough to study is already fixed by rules that privilege certain styles.

Walser shows that rap offers a complexity that needs careful studying to appreciate – just as those who would study Bach Chorales find incredible intricacies each time they look. Walser seems to validate the comments made about Dizzee Rascal; rhythm and timbre provide the same sort of complexity that harmony does.

The right of harmony to be studied and analysed is often argued for persuasively – however it is rare to find the same demand for studying rhythm and timbre. Indeed do we know the rules for creating a good groove in the way we know the rules for harmonising a Bach Chorale? Why is this? Is this right?

At the same time does this pretence that Bach unlocks untold secrets really deny the importance of seeing music as part of our cultural practices? Do we diminish diversity and difference in our efforts to locate the beginning of harmony in Bach?


This is relevant as the A level syllabus may well be dumbing down its requirements in no longer requiring the analysis of Bach chorales. Jane Werry introduces a number of questions about the loss of harmony.


However I wonder if it is true to say:

  • In fact I would go a bit further and say that any student of music needs to get to know the beast that is Music – ignorance may be bliss for a while but it starts to smart eventually! It doesn’t matter whether you intend to be a radical avant-garde composer or a peripatetic instrumental teacher (no idea why they should be poles apart – just two different jobs!!) you need to understand how music works. Inside harmony and musical tone there is a world of scientific fact 
  • And the mention of jazz leads me on to the obvious element of the importance of bass line, so crucial in most popular music and found throughout Bach’s chorales.
  • I believe that in order to understand the ‘art’ of serial or minimal musical art forms or other types of musical genres, then individuals must have a secure grasp of the harmonic language that defines and structures most music
  • The Beatles had no idea what they were doing technically, but they did by having good ears. When you then analyse it, the basics are there. 
  • At KS5 I find nothing more thrilling than opening the students’ ears to inversions, chord progressions, voice leading and everything which comes with Bach chorale/Western classical language.
  • if their aim was to make the qualification more ‘rigorous’. I believe from my own experience that learning the ‘rules’ of Western tonal harmony is an essential part of becoming a good musician
  • Without understanding harmony how can you understand music – you simply become an appreciative observer – there is nothing wrong with this but to produce further outstanding performers, composers and musicologists then the basic foundation must surely be in place.

The implication is that harmony is central to music and other qualities – melody, timbre, texture, and rhythm are marginal.


Unlock harmony and you unlock music. I’m not sure about this.


And I’m not sure about reducing harmony to functional tonality – a very specific subset of harmony. If anything functional tonality is a marginal compositional technique. I’m not sure what William Earl “Bootsy” Collins might say about great bass lines and whether much is gained by arguing Bach got there first.


The valorising of Bach’s harmony runs the risk of neutralising an important figure – a great improviser, melody writer, and composer of complex textures. Bach’s use of pop tunes and hymns marks him out as a remixer that kicks ass.

Some would argue we neutralise Bach as some kind of bearer of great universal harmony when in fact he was heavily influenced by French and Italian approaches to composition. Is Dizzee Rascal really a lesser musician because he didn’t study the functional tonality of Bach? If Bach’s music is part of one cultural practice amongst many others what other cultural practices could we study?

I’m not sure about the way Bach’s approach to harmony is seen as the starting point and foundation for all other approaches. There’s a certain “whitewashing ‘” here. It may be that explaining Jazz harmony in terms of Bach chorale harmonisation is simplifying and ignoring many aspects of difference. By difference I am suggesting that jazz with its roots in Afro – American culture and tradition may follow different principles and rules that cannot only be explained as a deviation from our white harmonic perspective. Bach is not the centre from which other music’s are explained and defined.

Maybe this is a part of our loss. These days the plurality of voices laying claim to authenticity and truth is dazzling – it is hard to find an anchor for meaning. It might be that claims of Bach’s musical greatness are used partly as a symbolic confirmation of the superiority of whiteness. Decentring Bach decentres whiteness and our own sense of self.


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