How to survive a harmonic analysis assignment – if you’re not a classical musician

I’m from a traditional music background. For my undergraduate music degree it was required that I do a western art music analysis course – PANIC!!! These are a few things that helped me hack that skill-set, and pass!

  • Go to all the lectures. You’re starting on the back foot, so you can’t afford to miss any.
  • Read the assignment very carefully. Ask the lecturer for a sample answer if they don’t give one.
  • You’ll probably be asked to analyse a piece from the canon of western art music, e.g. a string quartet by Shostakovich, or a Bach chorale. If your lecturer hasn’t recommended a particular recording, go to Youtube / Spotify / the library and find a recording from an authoritative source, that you enjoy listening to. Listen to the presribed music on repeat in the background.
  • Read all of the assigned readings / literature available on the assigned work. (Make note of the title, author and publisher of everything you’ve read for your bibliography.) Highlight any text that seems relevant to your assignment, and keep it all in one Word doc. You can refer to this later if you need to write a commentary / essay.
… If the notes on your score are tiny and low-contrast, you’ll save yourself a lot of grief by creating your own score in Finale / Sibelius.
  • If you struggle with sight-reading, you may find it helpful to create your own score. But don’t worry – I don’t propose that you transcribe every individual note into your computer! A lot of the canon of western art music is public domain, and has already been transcribed by enthusiasts. So…
  1. Go to , and search for your assigned work (If you don’t find the piece on , search the internet at large for <title of your piece> and <.xml> or <.mxl> )
  2. When you find a version, spot-check a few chords in the new version against the original score, to ensure it’s accurate (I haven’t come across an inaccurate transcription yet)
  3. On MuseScore, click ‘Download’, select ‘MusicXML’, download the .xml file
  4. Open your music notation software, and import the MusicXML file (In Finale: go to File menu, click ‘Import’, click ‘MusicXML…’, select the relevant file in your downloads folder, click ‘open’)

… and ta-DA … you should now have your own score in front of you, which you can edit to help you learn!

  • You’ll need to look up bars, and then reference bars, as quickly and clearly as possible. I suggest that before you start your assignment, you put a measure number on every single bar. If you’re old-skool then handwrite it on your printed score. If you’re a techie, use your music notation software to add it (In Finale 25, click to ‘Measure’, select all, click on ‘Measure’ menu, then click ‘Show Measure Numbers’.)
  • If you’re analysing a piece with viola clef and reading this slows you down… how about using tech to change the viola staff to the bass clef? (In Finale 25, select the ‘Clef’ tool, double-click bar 1 of the viola staff, the ‘change clef’ window will pop up, select bass clef, then click ‘OK’)
  • More than likely, the learning objective of your assignment is the skill of chord diagnosis, and the concepts of harmonic analysis. Because I wasn’t a fast sight-reader during my undergrad, diagnosing each chord was painfully slow, and I had less time to work on understanding broader harmonic concepts. So I encourage students to work at their music literacy, but seperately to their analysis assignments. How about putting your piece into AlphaNotes font, which has the letter name of the note in its notehead? (In Finale, select all, then click on the Plugins menu, select ‘Note, Beam and Rest Editing’ and select ‘AlphaNotes’). Your chord diagnosis will now be exponentially faster.
Úna’s sneaky hacks: notes in AlphaNotes font, and viola staff in bass clef
(sssh, don’t tell anyone 🙂 )
  • There are loads of different schools of musical analysis; Schenkerian, etc. . However, they nearly all require analysing chords, cadences and tonality.
  • If you’re diagnosing a chord, but are uncertain about your results, try checking your diagnosis against the free online tool, the Chord Identifier. Input up to 6 notes, and this amazing gadget gives you a list of what chords these notes could comprise. In my experience the Chord Identifier gives many results, but is not exhaustive; I use it as a brainstorming tool, rather than an ultimate authority.
Chord Identifier inputting system
  • If you’re diagnosing a chord, and are unsure what it is, then I say – totally ignore the notes. Get the recording, close your eyes and LISTEN. At the relevant point, ask yourself… what note is most prominent? What feels like ‘doh’? Does it sound major / minor / diminished / augmented? Where does it want to go? These questions may bring you some clarity.
  • This is a decent index of various cadences, with audio examples. Again, if uncertain about the nature of a cadence, you could close your eyes while listening and asking yourself a few questions: How does it feel? What feels like home? Where does the melody want to go?
  • Is the melody modulating or not? Answer: if a melody has a chromatic note, THEN a cadence (even an unfinished cadence!), the melody has modulated. But … if a melody has a chromatic note, and no cadence following, it’s an inflection.

Agus sin é!! I hope these tips save you some grief, and help you actually enjoy the beautiful music of Bach / Shostakovich / Beethoven!