Giving his students ‘x-ray ears’ is the sign of success for Yale scholar

A man listening to music with his hands behind his head, and an illustrated notation collage the background.
(© stock.adobe.com)

When Daniel Harrison, the Allen Forte Professor of Music Theory in the Department of Music, wants to demonstrate what tonal theory — his particular area of expertise — is, he doesn’t turn to a blackboard. Instead, he sits down at a piano.

Harrison, who likens his office — complete with a piano, stereo, and speakers — to a lab, was recently honored with the Wallace Berry Award from the Society for Music Theory for his 2016 book titled “Pieces of Tradition: An Analysis of Contemporary Tonal Music.” He was recognized for his “significant contributions to music theory, analysis, or history of theory.”

When he first learned he had won the award, Harrison was surprised. “It had taken a long time for me to write this book. I taught my first classes in it in 1995. Coming to Yale was one of the stops to adjust to new life here and to take advantage of new knowledge and the available resources on campus,” he says. “I’m proud of the work but I saw all of the manufacturing effort that went into it and not the final product. I since have gone back and reread it with that in mind and thought it was pretty good.”

A portrait of Yale professor Daniel Harrison.
Daniel Harrison

For Harrison, learning about tonal music was a result of not “leaving well enough alone” as a teenager. “I had a little compositional urge in me in middle school and high school so I started to change the pieces that I was practicing and tinker with the composer’s text. It was only in college that I learned that there was a formal way to study this, and Yale was one of the leading places that was doing it,” says Harrison, who received his Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1986.

The music theorist explains that tonal music is present in most of the music in our culture, from pop music to classical music. In tonal music, there are cycles of tension and relaxation, of motion and rest, and of “home and away,” says Harrison. “Our experience of these cycles in tonal music is like a wave. Music theory is really an understanding of how effects like this are built into musical compositions.”

Harrison’s most recent work has focused on tonal music in the last century and the similarities between classical composers and commercial songwriters such as Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. He says that both use common elements to compose their music. “When composers specialize, become pop songwriters or classical concert writers, they are still using the same materials; they are just constricting themselves in terms of what styles they are going to use those materials in.”

It was this interest in Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys that gave Harrison the idea to teach a graduate seminar on the band at Yale, which was offered for the first time this semester. It has been, he says, a “gratifying” experience.

It was the music that drew me first,” says Harrison, who is less a fan of the Beach Boys than a scholar who specializes in the group’s music. “But then there is a whole context of how they have been a critical part of popular American culture, both commercial and non-commercial. That is why the course is titled ‘The Beach Boys: American Culture and Counterculture.’”

In our common understanding, says Harrison, “the pop music of the Beach Boys is fun, fun, fun, and girls and surfing. They are fixed in the American imagination at the peak of their popularity in the early 1960s before the Beatles.”

A black and white photo of the Beach Boys in 1965.
The Beach Boys in a promotional photograph from 1965 (Brian Wilson is second from right). By Capitol Records via Wikimedia Commons.

There was a tension between commercialism and art that produced a lot of conflict in the band, says Harrison. “Their extremely experimental non-commercial music-making turned out to be artistically fascinating to me because here are people who were producing number-one hits who are now doing some pretty unusual stuff. At the time Brian Wilson was mentally ill and broke down with schizophrenia. It took 30 years for this non-commercial material to finally be released.”

All of this combined provides another dramatic and personal interest story with this band which is still making history 50 years later,” says Harrison.

Studying topics such as the creative art of making music is an important part of a Yale student’s education, according to Harrison. “People are vitally interested in music. There is no culture without musicians and people to train them. Understanding our creative expressions and our creative needs is I think one of the great experiences that students can get from studying creative arts humanities such as music, poetry, and art.

It is one of the more curious aspects of our human condition,” adds Harrison. “We don’t need these things to survive in the way that we need food, for example. Once one gets involved with any art form and gets fascinated by it, it is an inexhaustible and lifelong experience.”

In both the Beach Boys seminar and his music theory courses, Harrison hopes to affect the way that students listen and hear music. “It is like giving them x-ray ears that they can turn on and experience the effects but not be carried away by them. They can stand outside and understand how the effects work. If I can do that it is the greatest reward I get in teaching.

There is more music in the world than I can ever possibly listen to and I am interested in it all, says Harrison. “I hope that through my teaching I can also have students come away with that concept as well.”

Arts & Humanities

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