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.




What is a Convenient Shorthand for Music Notation Within Word Processing Software?

2011Symposium_1_2When writing lesson plans, I frequently have wished that I had a way of writing melodies quickly and easily on my computer within my word processing software. After attempting to use available symbols on the computer keyboard to contrive stick notation, and then line up solfege syllables I found all of this too time consuming and inconvenient. Some time later, I finally thought of a system that, with practice reading it, would serve my purpose well. I may not be the first to use this system for notating music within word processing software, but I don’t recall being informed of it from any other source.


For many years, I have used Finale music notation software. In the speedy C-Major-Scaleentry mode, entering notes without a midi instrument, numbers are used for note values, and pitches are indicated with the click of the mouse on the desired line or space of the musical staff. In my music notation for word processing, I adapted the numbers, combining them with solfege syllables. Dotted notes have a period following the number, and rests are a dash followed by a number. Time signatures are indicated with a fraction, and key signatures are indicated with linearly placed bs or #s. Tied notes have a number for the second note of the tie, and the tied notes are connected by an underscore.  I will demonstrate the system with the well-known horn solo from the movement “andante cantabile” from Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony.

Figure 1

Andante cantabile from symphony no. 5 by Tchaikovsky

bbb 12/8 mi4 re4 do4| mi5. re6. ti4 do4 re4| fa5. mi6. mi4 fa4 so4| la5. la5 la4 la5._5 la4| la5. so5.—5 –4 mi4 re4 do4| etc.

the three bs indicate three flats in the key signature. 12/8 is the time signature. The first note is mi4. Mi in fixed do solfege is E, and because of the key signature, it is E-flat. Solfege syllables continue in the same way. Measure lines are given with a vertical line

( | ). In the fourth measure, there are two A-flats that are tied; a dotted quarter note tied to a quarter note. These tied notes look like this: la5._5 with la5. being the dotted quarter note A-flat, the underscore being the tie, 5 being the tied quarter note. I am able to type all of those notes quickly, and with practice, can read the solfege for pitches and the number for rhythms, just as I read note heads for pitches and stems and connectors for pitches and rhythms respectively in standard music notation. Using this system also has the advantage of keeping me from seeing standard music notation, just as my students are unable to view it, as I sing to them in solfege, and then have them repeat what I sang. It reminds me of the position I place them in, and it also gives me extra practice using solfege in a purely aural/oral way. If you are working on your fixed do solfege, as I have been this year, writing out and then singing melodies using this system is good practice. For those times when I need to remind myself of a melody I will be teaching, this short-hand system works quite well.