Slee Institute of Tonal Harmony

Director: Charles J. Smith, Chair of Music Theory
Supported with funds from the Frederick C. and Alice Slee Endowment


To integrate the highest-level of systematic speculative research in music theory with the everyday business of teaching harmony to undergraduate students.

Motivating Questions:

  • After over a century of innovation and insight into the nature and properties of music, why are our texts and techniques for teaching harmony and counterpoint essentially unchanged from those of 50-100 years ago?
  • Shouldn't the conclusions of our best music-theoretical researchers be having more of an impact on the way the musical basics are taught?
  • Or, failing that, shouldn't researchers be thinking more directly about those basics, if only to figure out ways to understand and thereby teach them better?

Working Hypotheses

  • Tonal harmony is best studied from a variety of chord-categorizational perspectives—not just fundamental bass, but also from the perspectives of function and bass-line-determinacy.
  • Tonal harmony must be taught hierarchically, not just on the surface.
  • Tonal harmony is most literately taught as if it were a language.

Current Projects

  • Building, maintaining, and studying a library of pedagogical materials—primarily harmony and counterpoint textbooks, in a variety of languages.
  • Design and construction of an online database of examples of tonal harmony, including many from existing textbooks, analyzed and categorized according to the above hypotheses. This database will first be accessible by UB researchers, but will eventually be opened up to the public.
  • Completion of Tonal Models of Music, the in-progress multi-volume textbook used at UB for over 20 years—for on-line distribution as PDFs. This text will be available for anyone to use, at any school—as long as it is distributed at cost, no unauthorized changes are made, and proper authorial credit is given. The first chapters should be online by Spring 2013.

Research positions should be available beginning in 2014/15, to UB graduate students in Music Theory. See the Music Theory page for further information.