An Introduction to Harmony as a Subject

Among the many subjects taught at the old Naples conservatories, one can look in vain for "harmony." Given that two years of classes in harmony are required for music majors in most North American colleges, one might wonder why Naples left out this central subject. To explain the omission it may help first to contrast the social and professional status of students today and then. In Naples the students were lower-class child apprentices studying full time to become artisan producers of music, whether through performance, improvisation, or composition. The styles of that time required fluency in writing for ensembles, and so counterpoint—fitting multiple voices or parts together—was the skill to be mastered. Voices sounding together do make harmonies, but the focus was on the voices and the control of consonance and dissonance.
Today's college music students are typically young adults from middle- or upper-class families. Almost none of them will earn a living writing for ensembles. It can take a decade to learn advanced counterpoint, but college classes can only last around a dozen weeks. So instead of learning how to produce classical music, the students and their teachers settle for learning "about" it much as they might learn about galaxies or bacteria. The compromise is called "harmony." Music is described as being about a grammar of chords, and labelling such chords correctly will result in passing the course.
The fact that collegiate harmony is largely a fiction can usually be ignored because students, teachers, and institutions all benefit from a pretense that nonethless allows almost every student to pass and graduate. Problems only arise if a student wants to make classical music. Then his or her lack of skill will become immediately apparent. Asking such collegiate music students to improvise a sonata, for instance, would be like asking them to fly.
In the kind of terminological muddle that makes music history interesting, the Paris Consevatory took over the entire curriculum of the child apprentices in Naples but called much of it "Harmony." There was "practical harmony" improvised from partimenti played at the piano, and there was "harmony" as a written subject where a given bass or given soprano was "realized" by providing three additional voices. The resulting four-voice counterpoint on four staves (notated in soprano, alto, tenor, and bass clefs) was called a realization (réalisation). A student would begin by playing elementary material as a ten- or eleven-year-old but would eventually develop the skill to write complicated four-voice counterpoint full of remote modulations and chromatic embellishments.
Because these advanced realizations were formidable challenges even for very talented students, collections of fully realized examples were published to help young students or students in the provinces, especially if they aspired to ascend to the Paris Conservatory. In some cases the given basses or melodies were published separately from their realizations so that students could try their own hands first before comparing the result with what a master could do.