Over the next few weeks I will be doing a series of blog posts based off of the sessions I attended at the PMEA Sate Conference in April. My goal for these posts is to share the invaluable information I learned from these sessions for music educators who were unable to attend the conference or attended different sessions. I hope that from these posts you will learn something new or find some valuable resources to use in your classroom. The first session I attended was titled Selecting a Music Theory Textbook: A Guide for High School Teachers. This is an area where I do not have much experience so I found the information given in the presentation very useful. The presenter was Dr. Daniel Perttu, Assistant Professor of Music Theory and Compositions and Coordinator of the Music Theory Program at Westminster College Pennsylvania. For each textbook that he presented he shared the advantages and disadvantages that he has found focusing on what book is best suited for the high school level.

What to Consider When Selecting a High School Music Theory Textbook

There are many very good theory textbooks on the market that can work in the high school theory classroom. The challenge is to figure out which book will work best for your personal situation. Many of the theory books presented by Dr. Perttu are also good options for teaching theory in band, orchestra, and chorus as well as for music theory classes. The biggest thing to remember is that there is not one theory book that is perfect. You made need to choose one main textbook and then use other books to supplement, to cover the material that you need. When selecting a music theory textbook here are some of the most important items to consider:

  • How the material is presented
  • Quality of musical examples
  • Web resources
  • Does the book address different learning styles
  • Does it progress in a logical order from the basics to more advance concepts
  • Is the format of the book easy to follow
  • Pace of the book
  • Is all the information correct

Choices, Choices, Choices

As I said there are many options when beginning the search for a high school music theory textbook. Dr. Perttu presented 9 options for high school theory texts, Based off of his presentation I will share the advantages and disadvantages of each book and an overall summary about the books

1. Harmony and Voice Leading, 4th edition by Aldwell and Schachter (Schirmer/Cengage)

  • Advantages:
    • Incorporates rules of counterpoint early on
    • Has a good context of chords in context of music
    • Good musical examples
    • Includes web resources for teachers and students
  • Disadvantages:
    • Moves quickly through the basics
    • May have too many details for the average high school student
  • Overall Summary: A thorough text, but moves fairly quickly

2. Music in Theory and Practice, 8th edition by Benward and Saker (McGraw Hill)

  • Advantages:
    • Addresses multiple learning styles
    • Spends a lot of time on the basics of pitch
    • Introduces species counterpoint early
    • Good musical examples
    • Web resources
    • Introduces melodic organization and harmonic context early
    • Mentions the history of theory
  • Disadvantages:
    • Spends little time on the basics of rhythm
    • Doesn’t always follow a logical progression
  • Overall Summary: Good, but doesn’t spend enough time on basics of rhythm and sometime can be hard to follow

3. The Musician’s Guide to Music Theory and Analysis, 2nd Edition by Clendinning and Marvin (Norton)

  • Advantages:
    • Comprehensive introduction to both rhythm and pitch
    • Introduces counterpoint early and comprehensively
    • Balances discussion of melody and chords well
    • Requires student interaction with book
    • Good for multiple learning styles
    • Online learning center for students
  • Disadvantages:
    • Some of the workbook exercises are too challenging for high school students
  • Overall Summary: Good and very comprehensive. May need to skip some exercises due to difficulty.

4. Basic Materials in Music Theory, 12th edition by Harder and Steinke (Pearson/Prentice Hall)

  • Advantages:
    • Has good rudiments
    • Cut-out keyboard for students
    • Requires students to take an active role in learning
    • Lots of review questions
    • Good for multiple learning styles
    • Web resources
    • Talks about the physics of sound
  • Disadvantages:
    • Doesn’t introduce species counterpoint at all
    • Pace may be too slow
    • Requires a lot of teacher explanations-book explanations are vague
    • Format is very different
  • Overall Summary: Good book to cover the basic rudiments of theory.

5. Tonality and Design in Music Theory, Vol. 1, 1st edition by Henry and Rodgers (Pearson/Prentice Hall)

  • Advantages:
    • A good balance between harmonic and melodic discussions
    • Good basis in pitch fundamentals
    • Good musical examples
    • Web resources
  • Disadvantages:
    • Fast paced
    • Not much time spent on rhythm fundamentals
    • Introduces counterpoint very late in the text
    • Many chapters are very unfocused
    • Hard to follow
  • Overall Summary: Good approach to both melody and harmony, but has many disadvantages that can be hard to deal with.

6. Tonal Harmony, 6th edition by Kostka and Payne (McGraw Hill)

  • Advantages:
    • Comprehensive approach to using chords
    • Great musical examples
    • Web resources
  • Disadvantages:
    • Section on pitch not comprehensive enough
    • Chapter on rhythm is very confusing
    • Doesn’t cover enough about melody
    • Information is very compacted
    • Mis-leading information in certain chapters
  • Overall Summary: Good approach to chords and musical examples, but is limited in many ways.

7. The Complete Musician by Laitz (Oxford)

  • Overall Summary: Too difficult for high school students. May be a good recommendation for seniors who are going to major in music.

8. Harmony in Context, 2nd edition by Roig and Francoli (McGraw Hill)

  • Advantages: 
    • Harmony is placed in context
    • Counterpoint is covered in detail
    • Good musical examples
    • Web resources
  • Disadvantages:
    • Moves very quickly through the basics
    • Goes into a lot of detail for high school students
  • Overall Summary: Great discussion of harmony and counterpoint, but may be too advanced in other ways.

9. Theory for Today’s Musician by Turek (McGraw Hill)

  • Overall Summary: Probably too challenging for high school. Very good discussion of melodic writing, but moves very quickly through the basics and goes into too much detail for high school students.

Which One Should I Choose?

Below are Dr. Perttu’s recommendations for different situations.

  • For Incorporating Music Theory into a rehearsal setting
    • Basic Materials in Music Theory by Harder and Steinke
      • Good for covering the basics
  • For Regular High School Music Theory Classes
    • The Musicians Guide to Music Theory and Analysis by Clendinning and Marvin
        • Very well balanced
    • Music in Theory and Practice by Benward and Saker
      • Also very well-balanced and great if your students don’t need as much time on rhythm basics
  • For AP Music Theory 
    • Harmony in Context by Roig and Francoli
    • The Complete Musician by Laitz or Theory for Today’s Musician by Turek
      • For very advanced students considering majoring in music in college

As stated, there is no perfect book and you may have to use more than one book to achieve your goal. Dr. Perttu recommends having one main textbook and then have many different desk copies so you can pull other musical examples, theoretical examples, and supplement your curriculum.

I hope this information has been helpful when considering what music theory textbook to choose. Please feel free to comment and leave your suggestions on the books mentioned above or any other books that you have found useful from your experiences. My next blog post reviewing the sessions from PMEA 2011 will be on tips for creating a performance in the elementary general music classroom.