• Tonality: A Proper Introduction To The Concept Of Key & Scale

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    If you are interested in learning the concept of key and scale, then you’ve arrived at the right page.

    Although it’s common to hear musicians say stuffs like “the key of D major” or “the key of G minor”, through my personal experiences, I have learned that a vast majority of musicians don’t really know what a key is.

    Today, we’re dedicating this post to exposing you to what top music scholars know about key (which is known to them as tonality).

    The Evolution Of The Concept Of Key

    Before we talk about the concept of key, let’s define the term note.

    A note is a musical sound of a definite pitch.

    Although there are several notes on the piano:

    …they can be classified into these twelve pitch classes:

    In a nutshell, all the notes on the piano are a duplicate of these twelve pitch classes. Let’s look at how the relationship between these notes have evolved from neutrality to modality, then to tonality.

    The Neutrality Of Twelve Musical Notes

    The twelve notes on the piano are neutral. If you don’t believe me, do a flash back to when you knew nothing about the piano – not even an idea of how to play a simple melody with one finger.

    Remember how playing the piano felt like then. It was either about playing only the white notes or the black notes at random, which could result to some agreeable sounds sometimes, or a harsh and discordant mixture of sounds (aka – “cacophony”) in other occasions.

    However, with the knowledge of modality and tonality (which will be discussed shortly) we all got past the neutrality of the twelve musical notes

    The Evolution Of Modality

    Although there are twelve musical notes on the piano:

    …seven are considered to be natural, while five are considered to be accidental.

    The seven natural notes:

    …are white in color while the five accidental notes:

    …are black in color.

    “Hey! Let’s Walk Down Memory Lane…”

    In the dark ages (400-1400AD) when music practitioners were church men, music was considered as a sacrifice unto God and only natural notes (that are white to signify their purity) were used.

    The practice then was the use of modes which were formed by playing all the white notes (seven of them) from a given note to its octave. Consequently, the church in the dark ages had eight “ecclesiastical” or church modes.

    “Okay! Let’s Get Off History A Bit…”

    Modes can be formed by the organization of the white notes on the piano. Moving from every white note on the piano to its octave produces a mode.

    From C to C:

    ….produces the ionian mode.

    From D to D:

    ….produces the dorian mode.

    From E to E:

    ….produces the phrygian mode.

    From F to F:

    ….produces the lydian mode.

    From G to G:

    ….produces the myxolydian mode.

    From A to A:

    ….produces the aeolian mode.

    From B to B:

    ….produces the locrian mode.

    Attention: Although its possible to transpose modes now, it wasn’t so initially.

    Although modes were used before several centuries ago, they are still used extensively by jazz musicians who incorporate them into their playing.

    A good example of the recrudescence of modes is the sub-category of jazz known as modal jazz – where a particular mode (usually the dorian mode) is explored.

    Suggested Listening: So What by Miles Davis.

    These modes were used extensively in the middle ages until they were replaced with tonality.

    The Evolution Of Tonality

    After several centuries of the existence of modes, tonality was introduced. In the concept of tonality, a particular note is used as the key center (or key), with other notes then having their respective relationship with this key center.

    There are eight degrees in every tonality. The note used as the key center is known to music scholars as the tonic, and is considered as the most important tone in the key.

    “Check Out The Names Of All The Degrees In A Given Key…”

    The first degree is the tonic.

    The second degree is the supertonic.

    The third degree is the mediant.

    The fourth degree is the subdominant.

    The fifth degree is the dominant.

    The sixth degree is the submediant.

    The seventh degree is the subtonic.

    The eighth degree is the octave.

    Every degree in tonality has its role, which is usually a function of its distance from the tonic. For example, the subtonic is below the tonic while the supertonic is above the tonic.

    Beyond the institution of a key center, tonality gives character to a piece of music. In terms of character, a piece can either have elements of joy or sadness, can either depict day or night time, and can also portray the good or the bad.

    To that effect, there are two tonality types – the major and the minor key.

    A Short Note On The Major And Minor Key

    A musical piece can either be in a major or a minor key. Let’s quickly take a look at the major and minor key.

    The Major Key

    The eight degrees in a typical major key are identical with the notes in the ionian mode:

    …hence, the key of C major and the ionian mode have the same notes in common even though they differ in diverse ways.

    Below are some of the characteristic traits of the major key

    • Goodness
    • Happiness
    • Brightness

    The Minor Key

    The minor key is an alternate tonality, characterized as being dull, dark, sad, nocturnal and so on.

    The notes that make up the minor key are identical with that of the aeolian mode:

    This explains why the key of A minor and the aeolian mode have the same notes in common.

    “Having Understood What A Key Is…”

    Let’s proceed to the final segment and learn about scales.

    A Short Note On The Concept Of Traditional Scales

    A scale is a regular succession of notes, played in ascending or descending order; using a fixed formula.

    Playing the eight degrees in a given key [whether major or minor] in a regular succession, produces a scale. The notes in the key of C major (similar to that of the ionian mode):

    …if played in a regular succession produces the C natural major scale, while the notes in the key of A minor (similar to that of the aeolian mode):

    …if played in a regular succession produces the A natural minor scale.

    The natural major and natural minor scales are known as traditional scales because they are long-established scales that have for long been associated with the major and minor keys respectively.

    It’s important for every serious musician to know about these traditional scales in all twelve keys and that’s because they are basically an outline of the notes in a given key. From the C major scale:

    …one can determine the notes in the key of C major.

    In the same vein, the E minor scale:

    …can provide you with a reliable outline of the notes in the key of E minor.

    “Here’s The Natural Major Scale In All Twelve Keys…”

    C major scale:

    Db major scale:

    D major scale:

    Eb major scale:

    E major scale:

    F major scale:

    Gb major scale:

    G major scale:

    Ab major scale:

    A major scale:

    Bb major scale:

    B major scale:

    “Also Check Out The Natural Minor Scale In All Twelve Keys…”

    C minor scale:

    C# minor scale:

    D minor scale:

    Eb minor scale:

    E minor scale:

    F minor scale:

    F# minor scale:

    G minor scale:

    G# minor scale:

    A minor scale:

    Bb minor scale:

    B minor scale:

    Final Words

    With all that we’ve learned in this lesson, I’m certain that you now have an appropriate knowledge of what a key is and how it evolved from neutrality, to modality, and eventually to tonality.

    In another lesson, I’ll be introducing you to atonality – another musical concept you must know something about.

    Thank you for your time and see you in the next lesson.

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.




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