Book Review

Contemporary Chord Workbook Book 1 - by Margaret Brandman

reviewed by Abe. Cytrynowski (ANZCA Examiner)

The growing prevalence of popular music in examination syllabi has created significant changes in music pedagogy. A new lexicon involving the anatomy and mechanics of chord building is steadily forcing its way into music lessons. Margaret Brandman's work in the area of contemporary music theory is well-known throughout Australia. In her Contemporary Chord Workbook Book 1, Brandman yet again succeeds in making the language, structure and application of modern chords readily accessible to teachers and students.

The technical language used for contemporary chords reflects a significant shift of focus from the past. The dominant 7th for example, is no longer experienced as merely another challenging arpeggio which can be played without an ounce of understanding! Students are increasingly seeing the V7 as a functional, restless chord, constantly aching for resolution to the tonic. Convert it into a major 7th and feel the chord dissolve into ether. An intriguing chemistry at play here, and Margaret Brandman does a good job de-mystifying it for all.

The Contemporary Chord Workbook Bk1 starts with the most rudimentary of building blocks - intervals, basic triads, inversions. She then introduces chord tables and progressively more complex chords such as the augmented, the diminished, the suspended 4th and dominant 7th chords along with all their possible alterations and extensions.

In each case there is a simple, direct explanation of how each chord is formed, how it is represented symbolically (including all alternatives) and most importantly, how it functions in a piece of music - whether it has a powerful, "leading", forward motion or a tendency to "rest". For every new type of chord introduced, there is an extended section of chord-writing exercises with copious hints and reminders.

The structure of the half diminished chord, for example is presented from three different perspectives: as the 3rd inversion of a minor 6th chord, as a minor 7th with a flattened 5th, or as a diminished 7th chord containing a minor 7th interval. We are told on what scale degree the chord can be built and its status as a "leading" or propelling chord. Then follows a series of notated demonstrations of exactly how the chord can be constructed - using scales, modes and intervals. The lesson is then capped off with a comprehensive set of chord-writing exercises. Not even a whiff of confusion could survive this sort of treatment!

Brandman's book has a "no-nonsense" layout. At times the text on each page appears quite dense - the information traffic is rather busy. On the other hand, the book is mercifully devoid of the distracting, overkill graphics that seem to suffocate the format of so many theory books currently on the market.

The Chord Workbook promises to take the beginner in this area to a very comfortable understanding of complex and sophisticated chords. It should be an essential item on every piano student's music shelf.

An accompanying answer book is also available separately.