Harmonic advice wanted

Harmonic advice wanted

As much as I have the ability to read music (but not sight read) my ears serve me well enough to not bother with it. Strangely however, my ears seem to be crap for picking up harmonies and I’ve always found them a struggle to learn. I realise that this shouldn’t bother me that much on the fiddle, playing Irish trad, but recently I took the trouble of learning a couple of harmonies, the first to Tam Lin, and the second to Tripping up the stairs. I had previously never liked Tam Lin that much (too Scottish for my more Sligo taste), but I found that when I played it over a pre-recorded harmony that it gained a new life. Same with Tripping up the stairs (although I’ve always loved that one). And so (for home recording purposes) I’ve suddenly gained an interest in harmonies. What I’d like some of you good people to advise me on is (a) how common is it to have harmony with Irish fiddle, (b) do any good examples come to mind, (c) as I feel I’ll have to concede to reading the dots to learn them, can anybody give me some good tips for how one goes about working out harmonies (don’t worry, I can follow the theory), and (d) anything else that anybody may want to add. Thanks folks.

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Re: Harmonic advice wanted

If your ears are crap at picking up harmonies, I suggest that you set up a drone of some sort and play a few slow airs, listening intently to each note, sustaining it and varying the pitch minutely until it ‘feels’ right. Some of the combinations of drone and melody note will generate their own harmony notes that you will clearly hear, some of the harmonics will be less obvious and less harmonious, and you will have to work hard to pick out the one(s) you are happy with.
As to harmonies in trad, I am against it for aesthetic reasons. I suspect that the ‘gain a new life’ mind-set is at the root of the current inundation of attempts at suffocating a healthy body with effluent ‘new’life’. Having said that, what you do in the privacy of your own home…
:)

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I appreciate that advice gam, especially the last bit. I’m against parting with tradition (or I should perhaps say that I prefer evolution to revolution), and I can’t help but feel a suspiscion that applying harmonies is taking me towards the American old timey stuff. Still, I have a compulsion to learn and try things out before I then reject them so I’ll at least see this project though for a while. When it comes to the crunch if it’s just not done I will eventually just not do it.

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"I had previously never liked Tam Lin that much (too Scottish for my more Sligo taste)"

Not a scottish tune, written by the Irishman Davey Arthur.

https://thesession.org/tunes/248

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Yeah, now you tell me think I remember that. And I used to be quite a Davey Arthur fan at that. Still, it still sounds quite Scottish to me. Not that I dislike Scottish tunes of course. I love them. It’s more to do with what I play than what I listen to.

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And, of course (just checked cos I wasn’t that sure) Davey was born in Ireland but grew up in Scotland. Whatever it’s all great music. My point was that I never appreciated Tam Lin till I played it with harmony, and for some reason that harmony gave it more of an Irish accent (to me). That’s what got me going on this. But since Gam’s advice I’m eager for this thread to end. I’ve changed my mind!

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Sorry, please Ignore this post guys (unless you have something brilliantly funny, irrelevant or whatever you feel like adding). Having accepted Gam’s advice I have decided that if it’s not done then I’m not wasting my practice time, and so my question is now obsolete. But just as a pont of interest stoneboy, I just read through the whole long thread on Tam Lin in the tunes section. I think the only claim that anybody could give to this tune being Irish is that Davey Arthur was born in Ireland, but the general consensus seems to accept it as Scottish (as he lived there from being two). Yes I know it’s a moot poin, but it is after all, also known as ‘The Glasgow reel’. I was also a bit pleased to read that I’m not the only one that doesn’t fully like it. Good old Zina was a bit unenthusiastic about it. But then flyinfiddler seems to have followed the same path as I’m now on (but 11 years earlier), because he/she writes “ With two fiddles you can get some great harmony on the "B" part. One fiddle going high while the other runs the melody”.That’s what I just discovered and what prompted my now short lived interest in harmony. Flyinfiddler then goes on to suggest that you can follow it up with lilting banshee, which oddly enough is exactly what I’ve been doing. It makes me wonder if I haven’t read all this all those years ago and it’s been stuck in my subconscious. Anyhow, go and read something else!

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I think the Tam Lin thread has been edited, as I seem to remember a comment by Kenny to the effect that Davey Arthur told him personally that he wrote it. My initial motive for posting was to give credit where credit is due.

As for Davey Arthur’s nationality, well that’s for him to comment on.

With respect to the tune and whether it sounds Scottish or Irish…I have heard many Scottish tunes played by Irish players and Irish tunes by Scots and IMHO the feel of tunes can be greatly influenced by the style of the player. This is all to the good as for each tune we get a wide variety of interpretations rather than just one.

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Gobby- I don’t think you need to totally discard harmony. First off, in my experience Scottish music lends itself quite well to harmonies and they are used frequently,so if you like the sound, why not learn some Scottish tunes?(also, as you mentioned, American old-time music, but I seem to remember a disparaging remark about old-time not being "real Music" so maybe not for you)
Second, an occasional harmony as a variation can be very effective in Irish music so where the tune goes gaba you could play bcdc for just that half measure and then back to the melody-if you don’t make a fetish of it this can work quite well.
As always,singing or lilting is a good way into this-try singing a harmony to a recording of the tune,then find it on the fiddle. Then try playing the melody while singing the harmony and vice-versa. You’ll soon get the hang of it

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@5string, … a couple of good points there! As for the Scottish and even American stuff, well I love to listen to all fiddling really (Cape Breton, Cajun.. whatever) but when it comes to playing my age makes it necessary to specialise with what I practice. Generally (but not always) if I can’t play it with a Sligo style I don’t give it much time. But on reflection it was probably through listening a lot to Scottish stuff that suddenly brought the harmonising to my ears. But your second point really interests me and renews my enthusiasm, because I’m not sure that I didn’t just accidentally start playing a harmony to Tripping Up The Stairs without being aware what tune I was playing, and so you are right that even if I kept my fiddling solo, learning a bit of harmony could open up a way of adding some good variations. Thanks mate. Eye opening advice!

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Gobby, if you are interested in harmony, you could do what I did and sing tenor in the church choir for a decade. After a while, you dream in harmony… ;-)

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Sing? Yeah, now that really is dreaming!

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Usually harmonies aren’t done tastefully, but it’s well worth to "waste your time" breaking down stuff that the Bothy Band did, Kevin Burke and Matt Molloy did a lot of harmony stuff that, while not traditional, was within the traditional spectrum.
http://youtu.be/P8d66IgRtZY listen for when they start adding more layers on the "Hag at the Churn"

Or the stuff they do on Martin Wynn’s here
http://youtu.be/4GQibSm-Z2g


Planxty’s recordings had a lot of great harmony and counterpoint too, Andy Irvine was/is great at deconstructing the wheel and rebuilding it.
http://youtu.be/wcktlU5go3Y Here’s nice harmonies on an old warhorse

http://youtu.be/VK_caqXhbXU I always liked the harmonies in this one


There’s tons of good stuff out there
Oh, oh… Paul Brady and Andy Irvine http://youtu.be/UjOaKb-Z5bQ beauty!

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I don’t see how it could be ‘not the done thing’ to add harmony to a lot of trad music - there can’t be many bands, for example, that can work without harmony?? Though it depends on whether you consider them trad or not - I’m not much of a listener to bands currently, preferring to explore the styles of different fiddlers, and though I do usually lean towards solo recordings, guitar accompaniments are rarely intrusive. These are of course harmonic.
Plus I think a lot of people who prefer not having harmony probably make up bull about it not being traditional, despite the fact that harmony has certainly been around long enough and that musicians have always been thinking and experimental beings, and it’s hard to categorically state much about the music-making of 100/200/300 years ago.
Consider also that so many tunes are built from arpeggio patterns, often changing by bar and clearly outlining chordal motion. You could then argue that the harmonic implications of the melody are so strong that it doesn’t need harmony added, but it nevertheless makes clear the geographical root of the music; Europe’s music - of whatever genre - is famous for its logical harmonic system, at the expense of rhythmic complexity (when compared with many world musics). This may have been cultivated in the ‘art’ or classical music, but its development is evident in most European musical traditions, and its presence in folk music is hardly some new corruption.
Furthermore, there is a tradition of accompanying Cape Breton tunes on the piano, and various regional styles in the UK are/were known for a second fiddler playing the tune in thirds with the first fiddler, or an octave below (the latter not a harmonic part, strictly, but a harmonic effect nonetheless).
I don’t really know what people against harmony would listen to - sure there are plenty of solo instrument recordings, but surely many more will have accompaniment, and most of those with guitar. And do the people at their local session all just play melody instruments??

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thelightisahead — your post here ^ is exactly the sort of thing that fills me with despair. You have no evidence for any of your assertions, but simply take it as a given that harmony is acceptable, or worse, necessary. You don’t seem to have considered that harmony has been considered in the past, and rejected for very good reasons. To say that other countries / genres / styles include harmony has no bearing on whether or not Irish music has harmony. And your mention of ‘bands’ has no bearing either — unless they play traditional music in the traditional style.
I’m going to stop now.

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Please let me clarify before you think it my mission to deface the name of this music! I feel I have been misunderstood on a number of counts.

First, I can assure you that I do not believe in making assertions without evidence - a pathetic attitude that I abhor. I’ve just come out of the three years of doing a degree, and if I didn’t back up what I said in my essays I knew I’d be in the s***, so it’s second nature by now! I am not attempting some superior position in noting this, but simply trying to convince that I do not believe in asserting things without having reasons to support my thinking.

I do not believe harmony is by any means ‘necessary’ - I did state that I’m currently most keen on recordings of solo fiddlers, wholly unaccompanied (I’m eagerly awaiting John Doherty’s ‘The Floating Bow’ CD in the post). In fact, I’m sure many of my contemporaries (I’m 23) would find it difficult to appreciate music with no chordal/harmonic filler, a musical vice I feel lucky to have escaped. But I certainly feel it is more your task to explain why you feel it is not ‘acceptable’, rather than mine to explain why it may be acceptable; I’m willing to try again nonetheless, though I did have a go in my first post.

You have to consider my broader point: I’m not suggesting that because other countries and styles in the European area employ Western harmony, Irish music would be very unsporting to not participate. But because the specific modal system with its chordal logic is virtually a pan-European phenomenon, there is nothing outwardly illogical in the application of this to Irish melodies; they stem from the same branch of tonal materials. As I pointed out, many melodic phrases and patterns are composed of nothing more than arpeggiated chords, and I think so many tunes come about this way because of a background, instinctive harmonic understanding - whether or not one then chooses to actually combine these chords with the resultant melody.

I agree on the point about bands - it wasn’t the best example to use in the discussion of ‘tradition’ if we’re going to talk more grassroots level.

I would like some evidence for your own assertions, and your position also clarified:
—- Who do you say considered and rejected harmony in the past, and why were they ‘right’ where such a huge number of practitioners are therefore ‘wrong’?
—- Are you wholly against harmony in any form? Not a lone guitar accompaniment, as is so widespread and variable? I see from your profile that you play/have played guitar - did you never play with fiddlers, pipers etc.?
—- What are your criteria for ‘Traditional music in the traditional style’?
—- You must have very thorough, objective reasons for assuming you are correct enough to to treat your opinion as gospel - what are these reasons?

Otherwise, is this not a matter of taste alone, rather than propriety?
Please forgive what may seem a confrontational tone; as I’m sure you appreciate, one is strongly compelled to defend oneself when feeling accused of damaging a tradition they love and respect.

There goes my early night…

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Thanks guys for all the advice and opinion. I don’t want to start any argument here, especially when it comes down to personal taste. And I can easily agree with all points of view. But for my own purposes I am largely heeding Gam’s opinion. The thing is that I only play solo, with fiddle being my primary weapon. I enjoy listening to contemporary bands and stuff, and the video links were all great Brad. Thanks. And what I originally had in mind when I asked for help on harmonies was what you called ‘layering’. That’s because due to my social anxiety condition I can’t attend sessions (but I’m working on getting beyond it), and I sometimes record a backing track to play along with. This has been more to help me get the bounce right. I’ve always done this with either guitar, bouzouki, or (gasp) bodhran which I cheat on by laying it flat and playing it with either drumsticks or my fingers). Recently I accidentally slipped into playing harmonies as I originally explained, and I just had the passing thought that it may be an additional way to layer a track on my recording. But IN RELATION TO WHAT I PLAY Gam had not so much killed my enthusiasm for harmony but set me right. I well appreciate all the help and advice.

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All arguments aside… Gobby, I know where you’re coming from. Sessions aren’t the end all, maybe more home recording might be in your future - the beauty of our day and age is that music can be recorded and takes the emphasis away from a ‘performance art’ and with mr interwebz we can share things on a private level like email or broadcast it to the world on youtube.

Best of luck

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"Harmony" should never smother the melody. Yet melody is harmony, otherwise it’s just random notes. Playing a drone is a good grounding. It provides an excellent introduction to harmony & can be interrupted, or moved, at almost any point in time when a melody wants to breath w/out the usual restrictions; to play.

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yeah, I’m going to work on the drone thing. If I’d have been raised properly I’d be playing the pipes.

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@ thelightisahead
With apologies to Gobby for usurping his thread
"I certainly feel it is more your task to explain why you feel it is not ‘acceptable’, rather than mine to explain why it may be acceptable"
It matters little whose task it is to explain anything, or what is or is not acceptable. There are perfectly good reasons for not having harmony, just as there are good reasons for having it. The fact is that traditionally, Irish music does not have harmony.

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I give up. I was genuinely interested to hear and consider the answers to my queries, but never mind.

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Don’t give up! Check out some of the things I posted for you.

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Oh, thanks b.maloney, but I don’t mean giving up on harmony, I meant on the discussion I was having above!

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Seems a bit early to give up on the discussion, to be honest. Particularly given your username! :-)

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Harmony is used a considerable amount in Irish music.
The following instruments add harmony to melody, to name just a few, Uillean Pipes, Harp, to a lesser extent Fiddle, Banjo, Button Accordion, Bouzouki, Guitar,Piano.

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The regulators of the Uillean Pipes are equipped with closed keys that can be opened by the piper’s wrist action enabling the piper to play simple chords, giving a rhythmic and harmonic accompaniment as needed.
The Pipes have been used in Irish Music for over 200 years which would mean that harmony has been used for over 200 years.

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If you want answers:-

"Who do you say considered and rejected harmony in the past" —I didn’t.

"why were they ‘right’" — I didn’t say they were right, and I didn’t say who ‘they’ were.

…"such a huge number of practitioners are therefore ‘wrong’" —— There is no right and wrong, only what is played and what isn’t. The vast majority of musicians on the planet do not play Irish music.

"Are you wholly against harmony in any form?" — No.

"Not a lone guitar accompaniment" — Usually not. There is a very small number of guitarists who know how to accompany.

"…so widespread and variable." — It is the widespread-ness and variability that is the problem.

"…did you never play with fiddlers, pipers etc?" — Absolutely not.

"What are your criteria for ‘Traditional music in the traditional style’?" — They aren’t my criteria.

"You must have very thorough, objective reasons for assuming you are correct enough to to treat your opinion as gospel - what are these reasons?" This is not worth a response.

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I have a nit to pick…
quote"…"Not a lone guitar accompaniment" — Usually not. There is a very small number of guitarists who know how to accompany…."

Maybe your average six-string slinger who doesn’t play trad, but guitarists who regularly attend sessions have pretty decent handle on it. Sure there’s some bad ones who never get it, but there are bad musicians on every instrument who never get it. Not hardly restricted to guitar.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

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Well Brad, I’m glad to see that you are utilising your sick time in bed knitting picks.

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Details wanted

" You don’t seem to have considered that harmony has been considered in the past, and rejected for very good reasons."



" "Who do you say considered and rejected harmony in the past" — I didn’t. "

Gam, any chance you might want to provide some details about who may or may not have considered harmony & why or why not? It could be helpful.

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Gam is being a bit elusive here or maybe its axiomatic or decreed by Divinity and not to be questioned. Maybe absence of harmony is just a Sligo thing. Surely many people have not been bothered by this ‘rule’ especially guitarists who would just have to play chords at least now and then and then like John Doyle and others would even make up alternate chords like in Western swing and jazz which actually imply the single note melody. Will they rot in hell for their sins?

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Backing chords are not what I meant in my OP by harmony. I was meaning harmony along the melody line and I don’t think that if we are talking traditionally rather than contemporary that absence of harmony is a mere Sligo thing. I can’t think of much (if any) traditional fiddle music that I’ve ever heard with a harmonic melody line (Sligo or otherwise). Maybe people occasionally play incidental harmonic notes, but that’s not what I was referring to in my original question. If I was looking to do the stuff that Brad’s video’s demonstrated then Brad’s video’s would have helped me, but I’m looking to do the stuff that Gam clearly has in mind, and in that he has settled the matter for me.

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Na éisc - I didn’t say that people had rejected harmony — I said he didn’t seem to have considered it.
As for myself, I have considered it, and have come to the conclusion that the people who created the music, being obviously intelligent and capable musicians, who, as "thinking and experimental beings", as thelightisahead puts it, would have been well aware of the phenomenon of harmony.
That harmony is not part of the Irish tradition is enough for me to conclude that it has been rejected, otherwise we would have it.
There have been previous discussions here about the pros and cons of harmony. All I will say is that if you are not aware of the cons, you should think twice about what you play.
I am aware that there is an incoming tsunami of harmonic accompaniment that seems inevitable, and all I would say to those who think me a Cnut, is that you are perfectly entitled to play whatever you want. Just don’t expect to convert me.
Apologies again to Gobby — I am aware of the original point of your thread; but the ghosts are fighting in the attic once more.

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But we do have harmony, and sometimes we have disharmony and sometimes cacophony, but we still have harmony.

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I, not being strongly educated in musical theory, have often wondered if you can swap a melody note for a harmony note in a tune would it be the same tune? This could happen say if a tin whistle didn’t have the original melody note in its range or if another instrument didn’t have that note… say a specific keyed concertina or whatnot… Is there only one true melody for a tune?

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You can swap melody notes provided they fit. One of the reasons for not having harmonic accompaniment is that the chosen harmonic notes radically limit the range of available melody notes.
I wouldn’t say you are swapping a melody note for a harmony note, but rather that you are selecting a melody note from a pool of suitable melody notes. It is still the same tune, just as you can tell the same joke using different words. The words used are critical in some instances and extremely flexible in others. Too much alteration and the joke falls flat or turns into a different joke. Too much repetition of the same words, and the delivery becomes stilted.
Tunes do evolve, but at what point they become separate entities is impossible to define. If you hear a tune and can say to yourself , ‘Ah, that’s such-and-such,’ then I would say that it’s the same tune, even if you wouldn’t play it quite like that.

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Flutes have to swap notes occasionally because of their range[example Home Ruler], swapping notes has nothing to do with harmony or lack of it.
Harmony does not dictate the tune, but the notes in the tune can dictate the harmony.
Swapping melody notes to make them fit, is something that also has to be done on the one row melodeon, the alternative notes used are purely the subjective choice of the player, although the player is limited in his choice by the melodic limitations of the instrument.
The use of Harmony is a purely subjective choice, as is the choice of playing melody octave below, there are no rules but choices, and those choices are up to the individual concerned, without experimentation all music becomes stultified.
In the last Fifty years, Irish music has seen the introduction of the Bouzouki as an instrument that employs harmony, this represents a progression as regards the music, whether people like the use of the Bouzouki in employing harmony is a subjective matter, however it appears it is with us to stay.
I would not agree with anyone who argued that it should not be used because it was not used before the 1960s.

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Hi Gobby,

I can understand your wish to focus intensively on one style, but if you feel like exploring harmony in a related tradition that seems to accept it, you could have a look at the Northumbrian Pipers’ Duet Book. I see you can get a secondhand copy through Amazon for £4.50. Lots of jigs, reels, hornpipes, marches, some of them familiar from the Irish repertoire.

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Thanks Bernie, I may just do that. As I said, I’m no longer interested in applying it to my playing, but I may still study the theory a bit because I can see how it may help with a bit of improvisation. The only thing that scares me about your idea are the words ‘Northumbrian Pipes’. I’ve been so severely tempted over the years and at my age I should keep focussed on my fiddle. Buying the book could shove me over the edge.

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Re: note substitution eg when I tried to play Humours of Glendart by ear, my ear heard in the 7th bar ABcDAE, but it was actually DcBAFE, so it seems you can substitute an ascending line for an descending line and it fits.
Re Northumbrian pipes… there must have been some huge Irish migration to Newcastle at some time. The Geordie accent to me sounds very Belfast-Derry like. Vin Garbut has Irish tuenes in his repertoire

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Another set of books that is great for someone looking to explore harmonies is The Fifer’s Delight, and The Fifer’s Delightful Companion, by Ralph Sweet. These books consist of New England fife and contra dance tunes (which include a large proportion of Irish and Scot dance tunes). They were very useful to me when I was learning to accompany The Music, because the original book has guitar chords on the tunes that are simple, appropriate and straightforward. Unlike many books where the guitar chord recommendations are unnecessarily busy or complex. And the companion book consists of harmony and counterpoint lines for the first book. And again, these are very well thought out and sound pretty good.
I don’t think anyone would recommend a steady diet of harmonized melodies, but a little harmony makes for a nice garnish when sprinkled here and there.

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especially with mustard.

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