(Always) Teaching and Learning

Music Theory 101: Harmony and Tonality, with Professor Bernstein (Videos)

“Home” was how he described being back at Harvard University.

When Leonard Bernstein (Class of ’39) took the prestigious role of Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry for a series of six lectures in the early 1970s, he couldn’t help but reflect on the time he’d spent there as a student, once upon a time.

“All I seem to be able to think about is how it felt to be on that side [of the desk],” he said.

It was that collapsed distance between professor and student that allowed him to communicate so effectively with people of all ages — from the children who filled the hall at each Young People’s Concert with the New York Philharmonic, to Harvard students, to television audiences, and beyond.

In these clips from his first Norton lecture, Bernstein explains why “noise” sounds so different from “music.” It all comes down to simple high school-level physics — and his demonstration is so enthusiastic that he bangs his hands just a little too hard against the piano in the process (“Ouch!”).

Scientific explanations of regular and irregular vibrations are all well and good, but it’s the next part of the lecture where Bernstein’s extraordinary ability to communicate really shines.

Watch as Bernstein explains the entire history of humanity’s harmonic development — in five amazing minutes.

 

On Mozart and Musical Ambiguity

But what, we ask, did Bernstein think of the musical greats of the past?

As part of his Norton Lecture series, Bernstein examined the idea of music as a kind of universal language. He compared Mozart’s notes to Shakespeare’s words, showing how they created art that both made the rules and, simultaneously, broke them.

In the first lecture, he brings out the opening movement of Mozart’s 40th as an example of the ways in which Mozart moved freely from key to key (“free chromaticism”) while still maintaining a strong sense of tonality (G minor).

Now, it takes more than a few minutes to sum up Mozart’s genius, and Bernstein admits that the techniques he uses are “much more complex and subtle than I’ve made them sound.”

Still, it’s a great insight into Mozart’s music, coming from a man who knew the music so intimately.

 

About this content

In his six Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, called “The Unanswered Question,” Bernstein takes us from the beginning of music all the way through the 20th century in the way only he can, providing musical examples at the piano and with members of The Boston Symphony Orchestra and The Vienna Philharmonic. Excerpts of “The Unanswered Question” lectures used by permission of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc. All rights reserved. Tyler Alderson and Kendall Todd contributed to this content.

“The Unanswered Question” was produced in partnership with WGBH Educational Foundation for public television.

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