Working Aurally With Key Signatures

2011 Symposium2

In my post, Do You Really Know What A Key Signature Is? I made the point that we must not overlook the importance of audiation and teaching keyalities and tonalities aurally before teaching written key signatures. I mentioned singing and playing scales and arpeggios by ear in different keyalities and tonalities. Today, I would like to hone in on how to develop advanced audiation skills in this area.

One approach is to present a student with a phrase, and have him or her play that phrase in many or all keyalities. For example, you might give your student the first four notes of the last movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony, do, re, fa, mi, and have him or her first sing, and then play it in all keyalities. The student would play c, d, f, e, and then d, e, g, f-sharp, and then e, f-sharp, a, g-sharp, and so forth. For singing, I recommend using fixed do solfege. Only by using fixed do will the student truly audiate in different keyalities. With moveable do, each keyality is a repetition of another only at a different pitch. With fixed do, the student must consciously adjust notes a semi-tone with sharps or flats, and isn’t that the point of teaching key signatures? The student would eventually play this four-note motif with all key signatures. This approach is effective for teaching all keyalities, but only  includes one tonality; each time the student is playing in major.

It is also necessary for students to learn to sing, audiate, and play in all tonalities. To do this effectively, we would need material that includes more than four pitches. We could use “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman,” or what many of us know as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Begin by having the student sing, again using fixed do solfege. Let us say we are using the song in C major. The student would sing do, do, sol, sol, la, la, sol, fa, fa, mi, mi, re, re, do. That much is sufficient. Now have the student sing the same tune, but in dorian. This time, the student will sing do, do, sol, sol, la, la, sol, fa, fa, b mi, b mi, re, re, do.  Next,C-Major-Scale  the student sings it in minor. do, do, sol, sol, b la, b la, sol, fa, fa, b mi, b mi, re, re, do. After that, the student sings in Lydian. do, do, sol, sol, la, la, sol, # fa, # fa, mi, mi, re, re, do. Finally, the student sings in Phrygian. do, do, sol, sol, b la, b la, sol, fa, fa, b mi, b mi,   b re, b re, do. I like to have students sing in all the tonalities first, then go back, if he or she is an instrumentalist, and play them in all the tonalities. Having the student sing them all first focuses on the differences between the tonalities by keeping the performance method, singing, constant. Alternating singing with playing tends to obscure the changes being made from one tonality to the other.

Remember, all of this is being done by ear–there is no notation involved. At this stage we are training the ear, not the eyes. Because of this, it is also important that the student not only be performing in a variety of keyalities and tonalities, but also listening to songs in a variety of keyalities and tonalities. The teacher should perform songs in Dorian, minor, Lydian, and Phrygian often so that the students becomes accustomed to hearing and audiating those tonalities as a listener, so that when he or she sings or plays, the tonality is already familiar. Scarborough Fair, Eleanor Rigby, and Drunken Sailor are good examples of songs in Dorian. Music that uses the Phyrigian mode include Liszt ‘s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2, Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade, and Vaughan William’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Music that employs the Lydian mode includes Chopin’s Mazurka No. 15. and the third movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor. Tunes that employ the mixolydian mode include The Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’, the theme to the TV series of Star Trek and Debussy’s The Sunken Cathedral. Not all melodies will include all of the notes needed to establish a tonality, so choose one that is well fitted for the mode you are teaching.

Dalcroze ScalesAnother excellent method of developing the ear is to have the student sing and then play intervals in all keys. Again, start with singing using fixed do solfege. For this example, I will arbitrarily start with diatonic fourths C major, but it doesn’t matter which key you start with. Do, fa, re, sol, mi, la, fa, ti, sol, do. Then go on to D major. I do not use the chromatic alterations to the syllables, but make the adjustment in pitch when I sing, so, for example fa is sung for both f and f-sharp. The student sings re, sol, mi, la, fa, ti, sol, do, la, re. Remember, fa and do are sharped notes now. Proceed to E major. Mi, la, fa, ti, sol, do, la, re, ti, mi, and fa, do, sol, and re are sharped. If you have been doing these intervals while reading, you have experienced what a mental exercise this is, forcing you to adjust to the changing key signatures. The connection to a musical instrument comes as the student is able to think the syllables and pitches while playing. To help this connection, it can be helpful for the teacher to sing the intervals with the solfege while the student plays, then gradually reduce the number of notes sung for the student until he or she is left entirely on his or her own.

The time taken for this kind of training is well worth it. Though it may seem like these kinds of activities will be too time consuming to accommodate instruction on repertoire in the same lesson, you will see relatively quickly that training a student in audiation enables him or her to learn everything much more quickly, because they are able to know with more precision what they are trying to sing or play, and are able to produce the right notes much more fluently. They become, as it were, fluent “speakers” of music.





Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s