Schoenberg's Harmonielehre

© 1999 by Joe Monzo

This project is under construction!

1 : Theory or System of Presentation?

Someone who teaches musical composition is called a theory teacher;

but if he has written a book on harmony, he is called a theorist.

Yet a carpenter will never think of setting himself up as a theory teacher,

although of course he, too, has to teach his apprentices the handicraft.

He may very well be called a master carpenter,

but this is more a designation of his proficiency than a title.

Under no circumstances does he consider himself anything like a scholar,

although he, too, undoubtedly understands his craft.

If there is a distinction, it can only be that

the technique of musical composition is "more theoretical"

than that of carpentry.

This distinction is not easy to grasp.

For if the carpenter knows how to join pieces of wood securely,

this knowledge is based no less on fruitful observation and experience

than is the knowledge of the music theorist

who understands how to join chords effectively.

And if the carpenter

  • knows which types of wood are required by a particular job and
  • selects accordingly,

he is thus taking natural relationships and materials into account,

just as does the music theorist when,

appraising the possibilities of themes,

he recognizes how long a piece may be.

On the other hand,

whenever the carpenter introduces flutings to enliven a smooth surface,

he exhibits

    • bad taste equal to that of most artists, and
    • almost as little imagination;

even so

his imagination and taste equal that of all music theorists.


If, therefore,

the carpenter’s teaching,

just like that of the theory teacher,

rests on

    • observation, experience, reasoning, and taste, on
    • knowledge of natural laws and of the requirements of the material -

is there then really any essential distinction?



Why then do we not also call

a master carpenter a theorist, or

a music theorist a master musician?

Because there is a small distinction:

  • the carpenter could never

understand his craft in a merely theoretical way, whereas

  • the usual music theorist has no practical skill at all -

he is no master.

And still another distinction:

the true music theorist is embarrassed by the handicraft because

it is not his, but that of others.

Merely to hide his embarrassment

without making a virtue of it

does not satisfy him.

The title, master, is beneath him.

He could be taken for something else, and here we have a third distinction:

the nobler profession must be designated by a correspondingly nobler title.

For this reason,

although even today the great artist is still addressed as "master",

music does not simply have instruction in its craft, its techniques - as does painting;

music has, rather, Instruction in Theory.



And the result:

the evolution of no other art is so greatly encumbered by its teachers

as is that of music.

For no one guards his property more jealously

than the one who knows that, strictly speaking, it does not belong to him.

The harder it is to prove ownership, the greater the effort to do so.

And the theorist, who is

  • not usually an artist, or is
  • a bad one (which means the same), therefore understandably

takes pains to fortify his unnatural position.

He knows that

the pupil learns most of all

through the example shown him by the masters

in their masterworks.


  • if it were possible to watch composing

in the same way that one can watch painting,

  • if composers could have ateliers as did painters, then

it would be clear

  • how superfluous the music theorist is and
  • how he is just as harmful as the art academies.


  • senses all this and
  • seeks to create a substitute by

replacing the living example with

    • theory, with the
    • system.



I do not wish to quarrel with honest efforts to discover tentative laws of art.

These efforts are necessary.

They are necessary, above all, for the aspiring human mind.

Our noblest impulse, the impulse to know and understand,

makes it our duty to search.


And even a false theory,

if only it was found through genuine searching,

is for that reason superior to

the complacent certainty

of those who reject it because they presume to know -

to know, although they themselves have not searched!

It is indeed our duty

to reflect over and over again

upon the mysterious origins of the powers of art.

And again and again to

  • begin at the beginning; again and again to
  • examine anew for ourselves and
  • attempt to organize anew for ourselves.

Regarding nothing as given but

the phenomena.

These we may more rightly regard as eternal

than the laws we believe we have found.

Since we do definitely know the phenomena

we might be more justified in giving the name, "science", to

our knowledge of the phenomena, rather than to

those conjectures that are intended to explain them.



Yet these conjectures, too, have their justification: as

  • experiments, as
  • results of efforts to think, as
  • mental gymnastics - perhaps sometimes even as
  • preliminary steps to truth.




If art theory could be content with

  • that, if it could be satisfied with the
  • rewards afforded by honest searching,

then one could not object to it.

But it is more ambitious.

It is not content to be merely the attempt to find laws;

it professes to have found the eternal laws.


  • observes a number of phenomena,
  • classifies them according to some common characteristics, and then
  • derives laws from them.

That is of course correct procedure,

because unfortunately there is hardly any other way.

But now begins the error.

For it is falsely concluded that

these laws,

since apparently correct with regard to the phenomena previously observed,

must then surely hold for all future phenomena as well.

And, what is most disastrous of all,

it is then the belief that a yardstick has been found

by which to measure artistic worth,

even that of future works.

As often as the theorists have been disavowed by reality,

whenever they declared something to be inartistic

"which did not with their rules agree",

they still "cannot forsake their madness".

For what would they be

if they did not at least have a lease on Beauty,

since art itself does not belong to them?

What would they be

if it were to become clear to everyone, for all time,

what is being shown here once again?

What would they be,

since, in reality,

art propagates itself through works of art

and not through aesthetic laws?

Would there really be any distinction left, in their favor,

between themselves and a master carpenter?



Someone could declare that

  • I am going too far, that
  • nowadays, as everybody knows,


    • does not prescribe laws of Beauty but
    • merely attempts to infer their existence from the effects of art.

Quite correct: almost everybody does know that nowadays.

Yet hardly anyone takes it into consideration.

And that is just the point.

Let me illustrate.

In this book I believe I have succeeded

in refuting some old prejudices of musical aesthetics.

That these prejudices have remained with us right up to the present

would in itself be proof enough of my contention.

But when I say

what it is that I do not consider a necessity of art; when I say:

tonality is no natural law of music, eternally valid -

then it is plain for everyone to see how the theorists

  • spring up in indignation to
  • cast their veto against my integrity.

Who today would want to admit that

even if I proved it still more incisively than I shall do here?


The power that the theorist has to have

to fortify an untenable position

comes from his alliance with aesthetics.


aesthetics deals only with the eternal things,

thus always comes too late in life.

People call that "conservative".

But this is just as absurd as a conservative express train.

The advantages that aesthetics assures the theorist

are too great, however, for him to worry about this absurdity.

There is so little grandeur in the sound of it,

if the teacher tells the pupil:

One of the most gratifying means for producing musical form is tonality.

What a different impression it makes, though,

if he speaks of the principle of tonality, as of a law -

"Thou shalt..." -

adherence to which shall be indispensable to all musical form.

This word "indispensable" - one can detect a whiff of eternity!

Dare to feel otherwise, young artist, and you have them all against you,

those who claim that I am merely saying what everybody knows.

And they will call you

"meddlesome upstart" and

"charlatan" and will slander you:

"You fake! You thought you could put something over on us!".

And when they have finished smearing you with their vulgarity,

they will pose as those courageous men

who would have thought it cowardly not to risk something

    • in behalf of their views - something, that is,
    • which only hurts the other.

And in the end you are the clod!



To hell with all these theories, if

  • they always serve only to block the evolution of art and if
  • their positive achievement consists in nothing more than

helping those who will compose badly anyway to learn it quickly.



What one could reasonably expect of them, they do not fulfill.

The form in which they practice aesthetics is indeed extremely primitive.

It does not amount to much more than some pretty talk;

yet the main thing the theorists have borrowed from aesthetics is

the method of apodictic assertions and judgments.

[Carter, p 10:]

It is asserted, for example: "That sounds good or bad"

(beautiful or not beautiful would be more correct and forthright).

That assertion is

  • first of all presumptuous;
  • secondly though, it is an aesthetic judgment.

If it is put forward unsupported, why then should we believe it?

Should we trust in the authority of the theorist? Why then?

If he offers no support for what he says, it is then either

  • just something that he knows (that is,
    • not what he himself has discovered, but rather
    • what he has learned), or
  • what all believe because it is experienced by all.

Yet, beauty is

  • not something in the common experience of all, rather, at most,
  • in the experience of individuals.

Above all, however,

if that sort of judgment could be accepted without further justification, then

the justification would have to follow so necessarily from the system itself

that to mention it would be superfluous.

And here we have hit the theorists’ most vulnerable spot:

Their theories are intended to

  • serve as practical aesthetics; they are intended to
  • influence the sense of beauty

in such a way that

it will produce, for example, harmonic progressions

whose effect can be regarded as beautiful; they are intended to

  • justify the exclusion of those sounds and progressions

that are esteemed not beautiful.

But these theories are not so constructed that

the aesthetic judgment follows as a consequence

    • of their first principles,
    • of the logical development of these principles!

On the contrary, there is no coherence, absolutely no coherence.

These judgments, "beautiful" or "not beautiful",

  • are entirely gratuitous excursions into aesthetics and
  • have nothing to do with the logic of the whole.

Parallel fifths sound bad (why?).

This passing note sounds harsh (why?).

There are no such things as ninth chords, or they sound harsh (why?).

Where in the system

can we find logical, mutually consistent answers to these three "why’s"?

In the sense of beauty? What is that?

How is the sense of beauty otherwise related to this system?

To this system - if you please!!



These systems!

Elsewhere I will show how they have really never been

just what they still could be: namely, systems of presentation.


  • by which a body of material is
    • coherently organized and
    • lucidly classified, methods
  • derived from principles which will assure an unbroken logic.

I will show

  • how quickly this system fails,
  • how soon one has to break into it to patch up its holes

with a second system (which is still no system), in order even halfway

to accommodate the most familiar facts.

It should be quite different!


A real system should have, above all, principles that embrace all the facts.

Ideally, just as many facts as there actually are, no more, no less.

Such principles are natural laws.

And only such principles,

which are not qualified by exceptions,

would have the right to be regarded as generally valid.

Such principles would share with natural laws

this characteristic of unconditional validity.

The laws of art, however, consist mainly of exceptions!



Nor have I been able to discover such principles, either; and

I believe they will not e discovered very soon.

Attempts to explain artistic matters exclusively on natural grounds

will continue to founder for a long time to come.

[Carter, p 11:]

Efforts to discover laws of art can then, at best,

  • produce results something like those of a good comparison:

that is, they can

  • influence the way in which the sense organ of the subject, the observer,

orients itself to the attributes of the object observed.

In making a comparison

  • we bring closer what is too distant,

thereby enlarging details, and

  • remove to some distance what is too close,

thereby gaining perspective.

No greater worth than something of this sort

can, at present, be ascribed to laws of art.

Yet that is already quite a lot.

The attempt to construct laws of art from common attributes

should no sooner be omitted from a textbook of art

than should the technique of comparison.


But no one should claim that such wretched results are to be regarded

  • as eternal laws,
  • as something similar to natural laws.

For, once again,

  • the laws of nature admit no exceptions, whereas
  • theories of art consist mainly of exceptions.

What we do achieve can be enough, if it is given as a

  • method of teaching, as a
  • system of presentation - a system
    • whose organization may aim, sensibly and practically,

towards the goals of instruction; a system

    • whose clarity is simply clarity of presentation, a system that
    • does not pretend to clarify the ultimate nature of the things presented.



I have aspired to develop such a system here, nothing more;

I do not know whether I have succeeded or not.

But it seems to me as if I have at least managed to escape those straits

where one has to concede exceptions.

The principles of this system yield

possibilities in excess of those that have actually been realized.

Those systems that do not account for all the facts

also have this shortcoming.

Thus, I have to make exclusions, just as they do.

However, they do it through aesthetic judgments:

something sounds

    • bad,
    • harsh,
    • not beautiful, etc.

They do not take the much more modest and truthful way: to affirm that

the exclusions simply have to do with what is not common usage.

What is really not beautiful

could hardly be made to sound beautiful,

certainly not in the sense these aestheticians intend.



what has merely not been common usage

  • can very well become so, although
  • it does not have to.

And, with this,

the teaching of composition is

  • relieved of a responsibility that it could never have fulfilled, and
  • can restrict itself to that which is really its task:

to help the pupil attain such skills

as will enable him to produce something of established effectiveness.

It does not have to guarantee

that what he produces will be

    • new,
    • interesting, or even
    • beautiful.

It can give assurance, however, that

through attention to its directions

the pupil can produce something which in its materials and techniques resembles older compositions -

that is, up to the point where,

even in the technical, mechanical aspects,

the creative mind forsakes every control.



However much I may theorize in this book -

for the most part, in order to refute false theories,

I am compelled to expand narrow and confining conceptions

to include the facts -

however much I may theorize, I do so with constant and full awareness that

I am only presenting

  • comparisons, in the sense indicated above;
  • symbols, which are merely intended to
    • connect ideas apparently remote from one another, to
    • promote intelligibility through coherence of presentation, and to
    • stimulate the pupil to productive work

by showing him the wealth of ways

in which all facts relate to an idea.

[Carter, p 12:]

But not to set up new eternal laws.

If I should succeed in teaching the pupil the handicraft of our art

as completely as a carpenter can teach his,

then I shall be satisfied.

And I would be proud if, to adapt a familiar saying, I could say:

"I have taken from composition pupils a bad aesthetics and

have given them in return a good course in handicraft".

introduction by Monzo, next chapter

Updated: 1999 June 5

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