major / minor tonality
Potentially many things to many artists, the term tonality is often used to describe the sum total of the musical elements used to create a piece of music, creating it's emotional character and style. This term is also oftentimes used to describe the relationship between select pitches, especially with combinations of pitches within harmony. With visual color, tonality helps describe and define the various shades of one color, that myriad of different hues available to the creative color and lighting artist through the mixing of their colors. Musicians potentially have such a palette of mixable colors with say the instruments of an standard orchestra. Nowadays, programmable synthesizers can often effectively recreate these aural instrumental color mixtures while any combination of different "musical voices" constitutes a type of orchestra yes?
So what do it all mean Monsieur? How can we begin to examine the components of this rather complex term of multiple meanings? Well, what's your favorite song of the moment? What is it about this song you cherish? We can begin to examine the musical elements used to create this song and in the process discover certain aspects of it's tonality, thus developing a sense of these musical elements so as to be able to recreate the process on our own terms in our own compositions. Cool with this?
Hip to the idea of a major and minor tonalities and why this tonal duality might be so important for the creative artist? Well, are these two basic tonalities representative of the Ying and Yang essence of all of our human qualities and emotions? Example 1.
Ying and Yang? Masculine? Feminine? Sad? Happy? Minor moving to major? Is our music a blending and back and forth motion between these two tonalities? In simplest terms, major chords morph to minor yes? And vice versa? Is this in the arpeggios? Is this why we might think in terms of chord type? Could very well be. Can you hear the difference in these two essential colors of the creative American musician?
Are the major and minor tonalities the two main creative emotional environments that nearly all of American music is written in? Pretty much. And even within this basic two part distinction, the majority of compositions are written in the major tonality. Why is that? Well, the major tonality tends to create a more joyous, happy coloring, while the minor tonality tends to be more somber, reflective and longing. Do we oftentimes pair the two tonalities within the same song? You bet, this happens a lot and has been a mainstay for composers for a long, long time.
In theoretically examining any music, a first artistic distinction often made is whether a piece of music is in the major or minor tonality, or perhaps both, as in the following melody. The chosen music to be looked at here is titled "Greensleeves." Dating from the 16th century or so, this song is perhaps familiar to the reader? In two part form, the music of the first theme aurally describes the emotional story of the song. It is a sad story, perhaps best summarized by its first lyrics, "Alas, my love, you do me wrong." This first verse in more musical terms could be described as simply an eight bar phrase in the minor tonality. Example 1.
Sound even vaguely familiar? Click it again. Yes? Are you associating the word "minor" with the overall sound? The second half of the melody eventually supports the words, "come once again and love me." This joyous message of love is aurally represented in the major tonality. Example 2.
Here is a complete version of this song, dig the cool balance between the two contrasting tonalities in action. Example 3.
Hear the shift in tonalities? A basic but oh so essential distinction to be made for the emerging, creative artist. Equally important to learning the resources is perhaps understanding the compositional benefits of knowing the placement of these major / minor colors within the larger system of equal temper. With this in mind, let's create the natural minor built upon the root "A" and briefly explore its properties.
|whole step||half step||whole step||whole step||half step||whole step||whole step|
|1||1 / 2||1||1||1 / 2||1||1|
To play this scale on the piano, simply start at "A" and use the white keys only. Look familiar? Here is a picture of the bignote keyboard. Example 3.
Just the white keys? Ah, the C major scale yes? Are these two groups related? They must be, they share identical pitches n'est pas? These to groups of pitches are said to be relative, the key of C major is the "relative major" of the key of A "natural minor." So both the major and minor tonal environments exist within the one group of pitches? Yes they do. This simple idea is so essential to the understanding of our system. Lets explore the basis of this "dualism of tonality within." Is it in the different intervals between the same group of pitches that creates the two distinct colors? Example 3a.
|major / formula / pitches / degrees||minor / formula / pitches / degrees|
We simply locate on which scale degrees our two important letters are found. From the above chart we find the letter A on the sixth degree of the C major scale and the letter C on the third degree of the A natural minor group. Our "relativity" could be stated as:
|the relative minor scale is found on the sixth degree of the major scale.||the relative major scale is found on the third degree of the natural minor scale.|
This simple understanding to create new intervalic configurations by working within one group of pitches is potentially so very important. The ability to project the same numerical theory to each of the 12 major or minor keys, is so dependent on this simple concept. This theoretical perspective tremendously facilitates the process of internalizing the information, and can greatly simplify the playing "process." Cool with this? It's potentially a pretty huge concept for the emerging theorist. Here is the sound of the relative major / minor groups using the pitches from the charts above. Example 3b.
Lets take a look at the natural minor scale and place this melodic resource into the big picture of equal temper, from whence it came. Overall, the theory of this group is pretty straightforward, one intervalic formula projected from the 12 reference points or pitches of the chromatic scale. These 12 points are often termed the "fundamental", "root" or "tonic" of 12 tonal centers or keys with which we create our music. So now we combine the 12 major keys with their 12 relative minor keys. Or, the 12 minor keys with their relative major, yes? Lets look at diagrams of the cycle of 5th's for the 12 major / minor keys. Similar "hour" positions on the diagrams below pair the "relative tonal environments" by letter name. Example 4.
|cycle of fifths / 12 minor keys||cycle of fifths / 12 major keys|
So, A minor / C major then E minor / G major etc.? Yep. So, why is this so pairing of tonalities and their organization potentially so important? Simply because this "pairing of tonal environments", in whatever combinations, is such a large part of the musical literature of what has come before us. In the world of jazz music, using multiple key centers in one musical composition is very common. The reverse is also true, as say in the 12 bar blues form, but the vast majority of jazz tunes written in either of the structural forms of 32 bar A / B or A / A / B / A format generally go "somewhere" and "do something" keywise. Composers choose combinations of tonal centers to best create the perfect musical environment for their emotional statement. This "pairing" of keys and tonalities is nothing new, as we saw with the previous melody "Greensleeves" which goes way back 500 years or so in our music history.
Here is a quick matching chart to pair up relative major and minor colors built on the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale, or should we now say 24, with the inclusion of our 12 minor tonal centers. Using the cycle of 4ths, the keys are arranged here counterclockwise to the arrangement of pitches on the above chart. Example 4a.
|relative major key||relative minor key|
|C major||A minor|
|F major (1b)||D minor (1b)|
|Bb major (2 b's)||G minor (2 b's)|
|Eb major (3 b's)||C minor (3 b's)|
|Ab major (4 b's)||F minor (4 b's)|
|Db major (5 b's)||Bb minor (5 b's)|
|Gb major (6 b's)||Eb minor (6 b's)|
|B major (5 #'s)||G# minor (5 #'s)|
|E major (4 #'s)||C# minor (4 #'s)|
|A major (3 #'s)||F# minor (3 #'s)|
|D major (2 #'s)||B minor (2 #'s)|
|G major (1 #)||E minor (1 #)|
A good way to put a new key on the map so to speak is to learn a song or songs written in that key. With this in mind, here is a list of standard jazz compositions that are either entirely written or contain large structural sections in the minor tonal environment. Included for each entry is a brief description of the keys / tonal properties of the composition. All of these tunes are callable at most jazz jam sessions. Example 4b.
|title of composition||themes / tonality|
|"Afro Blue"||two themes, one key|
|"Autumn Leaves"||relative major/ minor|
|"Blue Bossa"||relative major / minor keys|
|"Blue Train"||one key (blues)|
|"Daahound"||three keys / both major and minor tonalities|
|"Footprints"||one theme, one key|
|"God Bless the Child"||relative major/ minor|
|"Greensleeves"||relative major / minor|
|"Here's That Rainy Day"||relative major / minor|
|"My Favorite Things"||relative major / minor|
|"My Funny Valentine"||relative major / minor keys|
|"My One and Only Love"||two themes / two keys / two tonalities|
|"Nicas Dream"||two themes, relative major / minor|
|"Round About Midnight"||two themes, two keys|
|"Stolen Moments"||one theme, one key|
|"Sugar"||one theme, one key (blues)|
|"Summertime"||two themes, relative major / minor|
|"Take Five"||two themes, relative major / minor keys|
Play through the 12 most common major / minor scales provided by equal temper, paired here by relative major / relative minor and sequenced through the cycle of fifths. Example 5.
Got these under you fingers? Other melodic resources?
|Where to next?|
Other topics in this history section?
Talent is always conscious of its own abundance and does not object to sharing. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn