Review of LaRue’s Guidelines for Style Analysis

LaRue, Jan. Guidelines for Style Analysis. Edited by Marian Green LaRue. Expanded Second Edition with Models for Style Analysis (CD Supplement, x, 85 pp). Michigan: Harmonie Park Press, 2011. xxviii, 286 pp.

Jan LaRue’s Guidelines for Style Analysis (Harmonie Park Press, 2011) reissues the classic introduction to a comprehensive method of stylistic analysis first published by its late author in 1970. This latest printing of Guidelines expands the 1992 second edition through the addition of a companion volume, Models for Style Analysis, included as a CD supplement. Although Models consists primarily of fifteen musical examples, the styles of which LaRue has analyzed in accordance with his prescribed method, its brief introductory chapter offers a revised “Cue Sheet” (pp. 3–5), the concise outline of stylistic possibilities that LaRue recommends the analyst use as a point of departure when undertaking to examine a musical work.

A glance at the cue sheet reveals the five broad categories into which LaRue groups the numerous parameters of musical style: sound, harmony, melody, rhythm, and growth (hence the “easily remembered” acronym, SHMRG). The investigation and evaluation of these categories forms the core of LaRue’s analytical method, and he devotes an entire chapter of Guidelines to each. While the first four categories in SHMRG are likely of obvious significance to any scholar, the fifth, growth, is one that LaRue conceives to encompass not only the unfolding of a piece through time but also the atemporal impression of form that such an unfolding leaves behind. As befits the character of a practical reference volume, LaRue’s prose is generally clear and matter-of-fact. To introduce the reader to potentially unfamiliar ideas such as this, however, he understands the value of a tasteful analogy:

At the same time that a piece moves forward, it creates a shape in our memories to which its later movement inevitably relates, just as the motion of a figure skater leaves a tracing of visible arabesques on the ice when the movement has passed far away. (p. 1)

This unconventional, but soundly argued, conceptual synthesis of musical development and musical structure surely ranks among the most progressive contributions of the book and therefore serves as a prominent reminder that beneath every prescriptive method of analysis lies a descriptive theory of style.

In this way, Guidelines for Style Analysis is part methodology and part theorization, and by nature appeals to two distinct audiences. The first consists of students and teachers who are seeking a basic framework for the analysis of musical works, and for whom LaRue maintains to have written the text in the first place. “These Guidelines are intended to fit in naturally and flexibly as part of existing courses devoted to musical analysis.” (p. xxv) Early reviewers endorsed its value in this capacity: “As the first book of its kind,” proclaimed Roland Jackson in 1971, “LaRue’s Guidelines is almost certainly assured widespread use, especially as a classroom text.” (Journal of the American Musicological Society 24, no. 3: p. 489).

The second audience consists of scholars who are drawn to the book for its embedded theoretical arguments concerning the nature of musical style itself. One such argument is that our notion of style ought to signify far more than simply the design of the musical surface, so as to encompass even the design of musical components with which it is sometimes contrasted, such as structure and form. In other words, LaRue has constructed a theory of style that facilitates the systematic examination of each and every element in a musical work. Musicologists who deal with questions of style within broader investigations of an artistic or historical nature will find the resulting method of analysis to be particularly thorough and efficient.

As Bathia Churgin reported in 1994, this “comprehensive approach to style analysis has spread far and wide . . . and has influenced all levels of teaching and research, from beginning music students and aspiring composers to ethnomusicologists and music theoreticians.” (Notes 50, no. 4: p. 1429) Readers of the 2011 printing will encounter the same beloved text, and those whose personal computers still contain a compact disc drive will enjoy browsing the detailed examples found in the digital supplement.

– Derek R. Strykowski