I am looking to get back into composition and trying to get some advice on textbooks.

By way of background, my biggest liability is my lack of formal training (I have none). During my early teens, I worked through every exercise in Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum——working cover to cover three times until I could work with two and three part counterpoint with some ease.

However, I never played my exercises. They were more or less math games. Coming back to music, eight years later, I want to (1) make my studies more practical —— in that I work on making real music and (2) improve my basic musicianship —— I can sight read on the piano decently but cannot sing a melody on sight.

To help with both these I am thinking of working through Hindemith's Elementary Training for Musicians as well as his two volume works on harmony and/or the craft of musical composition.

Two questions:

  1. Is it at all possible to derive benefit from Elementary Training for Musicians without a teacher? I have no dreams of great music talent, but I did teach myself through Fux. Looking for an honest take here.

  2. Do you recommend starting with Hindemith's harmony works or his craft of musical composition?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  • @Noah Schoenberg actually wrote more tonal music than pantonal (a term he preferred over "atonal"). Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 0:06
  • The harmony treatment is nothing like his music, given that chapter 14, "at the frontiers of tonality" talks about diminished sevenths and such.
    – thrig
    Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 0:07
  • 3
    @Noah, the things to know about Schoenberg were 1) he could write exceedingly good tonal music (viz Verklärte Nacht and especially Gurrelieder), 2) he taught primarily tonal composition, 3) he was probably the best teacher of composition in the last century (check out the list of his students sometime), and 4) his prose was very good.
    – user16935
    Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 0:26
  • 1
    "However, I never played my exercises." That was a huge mistake, as you seem to have realized. Kodály made an excellent definition of musical literacy: to hear what you see and see what you hear.
    – user19146
    Commented Sep 13, 2015 at 23:39

2 Answers 2


My answer will neither be complete, but I have more to say than what a comment allows.

Is it at all possible to derive benefit from Elementary Training for Musicians without a teacher? I have no dreams of great music talent, but I did teach myself through Fux. Looking for an honest take here.

Yes, absolutely. Like anything that you teach yourself, the biggest hindrance really is you have no oversight - someone to check to make sure you don't learn something incorrectly. That said, if you checked in with a professional musician / teacher from time to time, do your research, and be faithful about it, you should be fine. Like all things, if you discover it's beyond you, then you'll need to back-track until you find something your speed.

Do you recommend starting with Hindemith's harmony works or his craft of musical composition?

I recommend starting with the craft of musical composition. His language I find to be a bit verbose and flowery, but helpful nonetheless. I'm not particularly a fan of his harmonic language, and you spend the vast majority of your time realizing figured bass through four-part harmony exercises. It was good practice for voice-leading (a composition teacher once quipped that my voice-leading was too smooth for a particular section), but I didn't take anything away for my harmonic toolbox.

I own Hindemith's complete series and worked through the books.

Hindemith primarily focuses on rhythm and pitch, supposing that those two things equate to the craft musical composition. First, there are several other fundamentals of music that the does not adequately address, such as timbre, texture, and form, to name a few. Second, like all theory books, they should be considered grammar books - music grammar books. You cannot learn to write stories by only studying grammar books. You need to write stories.


This not a complete answer, by any means, but it might be useful to share some of my experiences. I am in a similar situation, having played classical guitar for many years, and taught myself some counterpoint, but never really got much further than treating it as a sort of musical sudoku puzzle - in that I could make a (possibly?!) decent attempt at solving some counterpoint exercises without really ever being able to hear it properly. Anything beyond two part counterpoint gets rather hard on a guitar (at least for me).

I have been working through some parts of some of Hindemith's books, and from my experience:

Elementary training for musicians:

Incredibly useful for mastering some quite complicated rhythms, mastering all the finer details of musical notation, and probably several other things that I have not got to yet (ear training, conducting, ...). I keep diving into this one periodically and always come away with something I have gained.

The Craft of Musical Composition Book 1 : Theory

I found this one incredibly theoretical and rather dry. I might get something from it eventually, but I am struggling to understnad what benefits are really to be obtained from it.

Traditional Harmony Book 1

Now that I have started learning piano, and can actually play some of the solutions I produce for his exercises, I have found this one to be a superb introduction to the basic ideas of harmony. Although I have only covered the first few chapters so far, I cannot recommend this one too strongly.

With regard to your question 1, I would say that even with no teacher, you could gain a huge amount from the book, but be prepared for it to take a long time to work through it all (not sure if I will live long enough to complete the whole book at my present rate of progress!)

It might be that the craft of musical composition might get more interesting after volume 1, but I will have to leave that to other responses, as I only have book 1, so far.

  • Volumes 2 & 3 of Unterweisung im Tonsatz cover two- and three-part exercises respectively. Volume 2 is available in English; Vol. 3 is not.
    – user16935
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 23:06
  • That is interesting! According to the back cover of my copy of Book 1, it seems to indicate that both the other two books are available (with code numbers AP 67 and AP 8189, respectively) - but a search on Amazon seems to indicate that you are right about there being no English version of the 3-part book.
    – Old John
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 23:12
  • @OldJohn Big thank you for the thoughtful answer. I plan on working through Elementary Training and either The Craft of Musical Composition or Traditional Harmony—probably traditional harmony.
    – Noah
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 23:49
  • 1
    @OldJohn I noticed the same thing about for the third volume of The Craft. Would be nice to see that released.
    – Noah
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 23:50

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