I have entertained the thought of using one single piece of music for teaching all of chromatic harmony. There are several advantages in doing this. The students get an in-depth look into the world of one single composer and piece, and develop an intimate understanding of and appreciation for that composer’s sound world. Through the study of a single great work of music, the students also come to a better understanding of what it is that makes a work a “masterpiece” (providing the single piece is well chosen). An obvious disadvantage is that focusing on one single piece limits the breadth of exposure to a wider variety of music and composers. But if students receive such wider exposure in other courses (e.g. music history sequence), then the advantages afforded by such devotion to a single work of music, a masterpiece, may be well worth it. Underlying such a single-masterwork approach is a pedagogical supposition that it is better to demonstrate to students how one approaches great works of art and how one enters the world of that piece of art rather than gaining a surface knowledge of a wider array of art works. The learning strategies practiced through in-depth study of a single work are transferable to all other works. In this pedagogical approach, quality supersedes quantity. The instructor should teach students how to learn rather than focusing on conveying content per se.
One work that is particularly well suited for the single-masterwork approach is Franz Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin. Almost every single concept of chromatic harmony (that is generally taught in an undergraduate music theory sequence) can be found in this great work. I already use many examples from the lieder of Schubert and Schumann. Students tend to connect with these smaller-form pieces with an immediacy that does not happen with other works, as their texts and text-painting seem to draw students in quickly.
To demonstrate the potential for using Müllerin for teaching chromatic harmony, I have created a chart of the entire song cycle showing where each concept of chromatic harmony is represented. One might enjoy the use of Italian, German, and French flags for corresponding augmented sixth chords and the use of the Neapolitan (ice cream!) flag! (It has become a tradition in my Theory III class to eat Neapolitan ice cream on the day the topic is covered. Each class must discuss amongst themselves which flavor (chocolate, vanilla, strawberry) corresponds to which chord member of the N6, and each year I get different responses.)
In creating the chart below, I’ve just about convinced myself that Müllerin will indeed be a “required text” in my Theory III class beginning next fall. What a great song cycle of gem after gem!
The chart can be found (and likely more easily read) here.