Does Harmonic Mastery Lead to Success? Find Out from Professors Themselves

by Stephanie Carlin

Remember in middle or high school when you’re listening to your teacher talk about the Order of Operations in math and you thought, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” Even today, I find some students asking that question, and it’s understandable. How often are EPD majors going to need counterpoint? When are Performance majors going to be asked “Now, before you sing, can you write out a modified mixolydian scale for us?” How often are music business majors going to use batons and conduct in their negotiations (although, if that came with a string quartet, it’d be a pretty awesome meeting)?

Still, no matter what major or track you’re on, we all go to college for one thing: a career. With Berklee’s seemingly unclear intentions, I became curious as to if everything we’re learning matters in the modern market. So, I asked George Howard of music business/management and the new assistant chair of music business/management Tonya Butler to help me with my quandary.

Before I get into their responses, I would be a little careless without talking about harmony for a second. Harmony is at the core of Berklee, and all music for that matter. When I was in Harmony 4, I found out that there wasn’t a lot to discuss. My teacher was great, but I don’t remember much except for special dominant functions. And when we look at successful, Top 40 songs, harmony isn’t really that much of a concern. The most invested recent pop song that we reviewed in my Harmony classes was probably “Love On Top” which, if you didn’t know, had a lot of sub-V’s. Granted, I am thankful that Berklee has taught me all the different ways I can make my songs sound interesting. I can now write infinite kinds of songs for all kinds of genres and their subtypes.

To play devil’s advocate, is every listener going to care what it sounds like? What about the market who listened to “Despacito” this summer? Did they care that it was a standard progression that musicians lose their minds over? No, but they still danced to it. Not everyone is going to understand why it sounds good, but rather the connection that they feel with the audience. In order to be successful in any entertainment medium, it’s about that connection to the people. How can we achieve that with just a song?

Let’s start George Howard. He recommended a website that he is actually the co-founder of: Music Audience Exchange. It allows artists to engage with their fans and figure out what fans want to hear. It’s pretty intuitive and I recommend it for any artist who wants to connect with their fans faster. As for anyone else, he genuinely couldn’t think of a chart that helps, and while I did find a few from a study done by the PLOS One Journal, he says it wouldn’t help to think that way anyway. Keeping an open mind about the market is important because the listener is unpredictable and a manager will almost never know what’s trending next. It’s important to know what your audience wants and what your audience cares about.
When I spoke with Professor Butler, she agreed with Professor Howard’s statements, adding that there is a market for just about everything. From death metal to reggae to EDM, every genre and sub-genre has its own market because at least one person listens to it. As long as you have trustworthy people behind you and an audience that will listen, there is room for success.
Ultimately, it seems as though harmony isn’t an exclusive key to success, rather a component. It also takes awareness of and engagement with your customer base, a solid marketing plan, and a keen eye on future trends in the marketplace. But hey, if you’re struggling in harmony, check out these weekly harmony help sessions to get you to the other side.

What do you think? What’s the best thing you got out of your harmony classes? Will you take Tonya Butler and George Howard’s advice? LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW!