This book could occupy all of your time if you wished. It is an essential read for every composer, containing the manual that nearly all great classical composers learned from. Contemporary composers still use it today both as a way to learn and a tool for teaching their students.
So, what is it?
The majority of the book is excerpted from Johann Joseph Fux’s treatise Gradus Ad Parnassum.
Gradus Ad Parnassum is a study of how lines of notes relate to one another, i.e. counterpoint. The book is not a typical textbook, but rather attempts to read like a dialogue. There is a conversation that runs throughout the text between Josephus, the student and Aloysius, the master. Josephus is any student who wishes to learn the art of composition, and Aloysius is the master teaching Josephus. It is worth noting here that Aloysius is a stand-in for Palestrina, the great Renaissance composer whose work this treatise distills.
But, the overall purpose of the book is not to tell a story, but to provide the reader (you) with a solid backbone in relating consonance and dissonance to each other as you write melodic lines. By studying the relationship between consonance and dissonance in both horizontal and vertical directions, you will grow as a composer in your understanding of the basic units of western music. Yes, the book uses the work of Palestrina as the ideal music, and yes, Palestrina’s music is amazing, but the goal for you should be to really understand the basic building blocks of putting pen to paper.
But, what if you have already worked as a composer and things are going well?
Buy it anyways. Right now on Amazon it’s between $4 and $14 depending on the condition of the book. Buy it because you can always get better, and doing these exercises challenges you to really examine your fundamentals.
You may hear on sports channels on television that a player has “good fundamentals”; that a team has a “solid foundation”; that the roster is “deep”. Think of this book as a way to ensure your fundamentals are as good as they can be, that your foundation is solid, that your skills are so deep that they are second nature and you can focus on writing the best music you can.
Buy the book, and do the exercises too. Sing them out. Play them on a piano. Spend hours doing these things, and you will come out a much better, more well-informed, and more instinctively-tuned musician.
There is also some commentary by the translator and editor, Alfred Mann. This helps to contextualize the book. This book was a staple for common practice period composers such as J.S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and others. It codified and solidified a set of “rules” that were the basis for the formation of baroque, classical, and romantic music over centuries. In short, both pedagogically and musically, it all starts here in this book. This book is relevant because it is the backbone, and the starting point for the study of western musical composition. The body of music written up to today is at your fingertips as you read and study it.
My copy is pictured up top. Don’t ask me how it still has an intact cover after so many long nights. 🙂