Teaching Beyond Major and Minor

Elissa Milne
Disclaimer: if you live in the 19th century or earlier this article won’t have much relevance for you.

Working on the P Plate Piano series (back in 2008/9) I was struck by how insidious the two-tonality (major-minor) system is in educational piano publications for beginners. Method book after method book sticks resolutely to major and minor sounds only, with not the slightest acknowledgement that other tonalities are the everyday musical reality in the 21st century.

This is true right from the accompaniments teachers are given to play with students in their earliest lessons, through to the five finger positions introduced later on, and then into the repertoire collections groaning with originals from the late 1700s.

My suspicion is that the music tonality discourses of the twentieth century have created a false dichotomy in the minds of piano pedagogues: if we aren’t diatonic anymore then we must be atonal, and vice versa (if the music isn’t atonal then by default it must be diatonic). But (and I feel some bold type coming on) these are not our only options!

Most of the music of the 20th century was actually tonal – just not diatonic. What this means is that nearly all the music composed in the 20th century did have a clear tonal centre (or two), but the pitch patterns around these tonal centres did not fit the two-sizes-fits-all rubric of diatonicism (major/minor). One changed note changes everything, as is the case with the dominant (no pun intended) tonalities of the 20th century: the Mixolydian and the Dorian modes. [For the modally uninitiated: the Mixolydian is exactly the same as the major scale, only the 7th note is a semitone lower, and the Dorian mode is exactly the same as the natural minor scale, only the 6th note is a semitone higher.]

But wait, there’s more: in addition to these two, most prevalent contemporary tonalities (Mixolydian and Dorian), as the 20th century powered toward the 21st all kinds of other tonalities became almost as common. The Lydian mode [exactly the same as the major scale, only the 4th note is a semitone higher] and the Phrygian mode [exactly the same as the natural minor scale, only the 2nd note is a semitone lower] also became regular shapes in all kinds of music. But even more exciting than these (actually quite traditional) modes were the patterns that involved augmented 2nds.

Augmented 2nds are what make harmonic minor scales possible, and they are the musical equivalent of one raised eyebrow. They’re that good. For a while there was a rumour circulating in piano teaching circles that you never find harmonic minor scales in ‘real’ music, but that’s demonstrably false, with nearly everyone in the classical sphere merrily popping them in to a range of circumstances, and Baroque composers constructing elaborate subjects for counterpoint using notes only from this harmonic minor pattern. The late 20th century took this interval and went mad with it, from pop songs based on modes of the harmonic minor scale to world music-inspired writing for film.

And then there are the scales based on the ascending version of the melodic minor scale. The melodic minor ascending pattern is exactly the same as the major scale, only the 3rd note is a semitone lower. It’s this very close similarity to the major scale that makes for interesting juxtapositions when the pattern is set in motion in a real-life composition. My favourite example of this scale pattern is the theme to The Simpsons, which uses a mode of the melodic minor ascending (its tonic is the 4th degree of this pattern).

And this is only scratching the surface.

How can teachers teach beyond the major-minor boundaries of their own formative educational experiences? For today I’m going to make only two suggestions, two easy-to-commit-to changes that teachers can make without first needing months of study.

Firstly, teachers need to start experiencing these patterns beyond major-minor for themselves. Take five whole minutes every day to play just one new pattern, learning it as if it were a scale for an examination (similar motion, contrary motion, in thirds, in sixths) as well as playing through the root position triads of the scale.

Here’s a suggested order of practice for those new to this whole modes-as-scales idea (along with each pattern in the key of C, for easy comparison):


Lower the 7th note of the major scale by one semitone. Start on G and play all the white notes for the easiest introduction to this mode. Then play it in every one of the other 11 chromatic possibilities the keyboard gives us.



This is the other major-sounding mode, and you raise the 4th note of the major scale by one semitone. Start on F and play all the white notes for the easiest introduction to this mode.



Think Mixolydian (lowered 7th) and then also lower the 3rd note (by a semitone) and you have the Dorian mode. Start on D and play all the white notes for the easiest introduction to this mode.Dorian


If you’re starting from a major scale pattern you need to lower the 2nd, the 3rd, the 6th and the 7th. Curiously for a key so flattened it ends up not sounding particularly minor once you acclimate yourself to that unexpected lowered 2nd. Start on E and play all the white notes for the easiest introduction to this mode. Try it on F next, with all black keys between the F tonic and C dominant notes.phrygian


Exactly what it says. Play a harmonic scale, but start on the 5th note as the tonic. This new orientation produces what I call an exotic-major effect. In my opinion the easiest version of this scale starts on A, followed by a B flat and C sharp and then all the white notes to A again. This is a very emotionally uplifting pattern, despite being based on so resolutely a minor pattern!Harmonic on the 5th degree


Well, that’s what I call it (jazz musicians call it the Lydian Dominant). It’s really the melodic ascending pattern starting on the 4th degree. An easier way of thinking about it, once you’re familiar with the Mixolydian and Lydian modes, is that it is the major scale with the 4th note raised a semitone and the 7th note lowered a semitone. Yep, it has the altered notes of both of those modes, and it makes this scale oh-so-very wonderful. Try playing it on F (all white notes except for E flat) or on G (all white notes except for C sharp), or on D (all white notes except for F sharp and G sharp). Great, great fun.

Simpsons scale

And those are just the first six I’d recommend. Practicing even these few non-diatonic patterns will open your ears to a world of tonal possibility.

The second suggestion is that teachers look for repertoire for their beginner students (and I mean first and second years of lessons) that does not conform to the major/minor five finger position model. Look for five finger positions with an augmented 2nd (there are more of these pieces about than you might at first think), or for five finger positions with a raised 4th, or with both a flattened 2nd and 3rd. Or look for pieces where the five finger pattern in one hand is not diatonic while the other hand is. Choosing music with these patterns means that students are playing music that sounds genuinely contemporary, relevant and engaging.

Originally published https://elissamilne.wordpress.com/2015/11/04/how-to-find-your-key-in-a-piece-of-music/ 

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