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Tonic Minor vs Relative Minor

Tonic Minor vs Relative Minor?

Ed Dumas

I was very fortunate in my music education to be offered a music theory course in grade 9 which was an added extra to our concert band studies. We received course credit on our transcripts for the work, and time was made available during the day for students to schedule this into their timetable. Today, these options seem to be closing down more and more due to ever more “mandatory electives” being inserted into students’ timetables. This is a very regrettable trend, as the cost of losing elective choice is showing up in students’ interest in work choices later in life.

In my case, this basic understanding of the building blocks of music acquired in grade 9, and then later in college and university held me in good stead well into my years as a band director. It helped me understand what I was playing in secondary school, it helped me enter college and then university music and education studies, and it helped me understand how to lay out a roadmap for student learning of the same basic music theory skills.

Over the years, many students have asked me about the requirements necessary to enter a post-secondary music program. Upon hearing that they needed a good understanding of music theory to approximately Royal Conservatory level two, many of those students would be discouraged and never return to the world of music. I can see how this is a self-defeating cycle that leads us to a rather acute shortage of music teachers in our province.

So, my knowledge of music theory has led me to take on an active role in teaching the same theory skills to my music students as much as possible. I did not always have the benefit of teaching a supplemental course for which students could receive credit to make this happen. Usually, I had to make do with covering what I could in concert band class to help this along.

As many time-sensitive music teachers do, I then doubled up by covering one topic while reaching a different, but also necessary, objective as well. For example, I knew that I wanted my music students to be able to play in all forms of scales, major, natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor. Once having taught the students what a major scale was and how to play it on their instrument, the next task was to then teach them how to play a minor scale. So, we would play the Bb major scale, and then follow it with the G Natural Minor scale, which is the relative minor of Bb major. This is the method of approach that I was taught when I was a student, so just naturally followed the same pattern.

Intellectually, I easily understood that the relative minor was the same as the major scale beginning on the sixth degree of the scale. I found this easy to grasp because of the strong basis I had in music theory derived from that music theory course I took in grade 9.

So, automatically it seemed to me that when teaching the scales to my band students, I should start with the major scale, and then move to the relative minor. In the key of Bb, we would play the Bb Major scale, followed by the G minor scale. Though I understood that concept well, my students, maybe not so much.

The issue seemed to be that when I talked to students about the minor scales, I would get a “furrowed brow” look which I have always looked for when seeking out students who still had questions. Some students, it seemed, were not comfortable asking a question, but when I saw the furrowed brows, I knew it was not making its way home to a level of satisfactory understanding.

So, I started testing my students to see if they “got it.” This was not a formal test with grades and all that. I just wanted to see if the students could recognize in sound a simple minor scale vs a major scale. If they could not do this simple task, they would surely have greater trouble identifying if a piece of music was major or minor.

I would play some scales to the students and just ask them to tell me if they could identify which ones were major and which ones were minor. The results were less than impressive and indicated that students were still struggling with the concept of major vs minor scales.

After several years of teaching scales like this, I then found myself at a BCMEA Convention sitting in on a session with Jeff King talking about his new band technique book that he co-wrote with Richard Williams. The book, if you do not know it, is Foundations for Superior Performance by Jeff King and Richard Williams, KJOS, 1998. I chose this session to sit in on because I figured the speaker might have some valuable things to say that are relevant to me, and maybe the book was worth looking at.

Well, Jeff King first talked about warmups and such as are often found in technique books like this one. Then he moved on to the scale-based technical studies and explained that his book moves from the major scale to the tonic minor, rather than the relative minor. The reason that they chose to do it this way is that as a band teacher himself, he found that students’ ears would kind of “flip” when the students were asked to move from the major to the relative minor. Right away I was hit with a profound flash of recognition that I remember to this day.

When moving to the relative minor, the student's ears would lose track of the tonic pitch, and therefore would be more concerned with searching for that than in trying to hear the differences between major and minor scales! In short, I was breaking the rule of giving students ONE thing to learn at a time. Now they were having to learn the intellectual connection between major and relative minor, at the same time as they were learning to hear the change in intervals from a major scale to a minor scale.

Sitting in that session hearing Jeff King explain to us why he chose to go to the tonic minor scales struck me so hard that I remember sitting up, leaning back, and throwing my arms up in recognition. I wanted to get up right there on the spot and leave, but not because I was offended or anything like that. I wanted to leave just to race down to the nearest vendor and purchase one book for every one of my students!

I didn’t leave right away of course, as I just cannot be that dramatic, but I was sold on the concept and have been ever since. Now, I will have the students learn to hear and play major scales, tonic natural minor scales, followed by the harmonic minor scales, and then melodic minor scales. When it comes time to learn how to construct the minor scales, I will then turn to the whiteboard and show the students how to move from the major scale to the relative minor scale. But, I will not ask them to play that change to the relative minor. We will play the tonic minor instead.

The difference that came later with students' understanding of major and minor scales was profound. Now they could play a major scale and then simply flatten 3, 6, & 7 to create the tonic minor. We could as a class flip back and forth between majors and minors without having to change tonic centers or lose track of the tonic pitch. We also did not have to flip pages in a book, which I discovered was another huge issue.

Many of the technique books that I have used in the past I have loved for different reasons. I have loved I Recommend, James D. Ployhar, Alfred Music, 1972 simply for the rhythm studies at the end. I even loved the old Exercises for Ensemble Drill, Raymond C. Fussell, Alfred Music, 1985 because the book was written in a way that the same book could be used with ANY musician.

Few of these other books, though, including those that I have loved, ask the students to move from the major to the tonic minor. Instead, the norm for so long has been moving to the relative minor. The only reason I can find for that decision is that it is the way piano scales have always been taught to piano students. I have even had a disagreement or two about this with piano teachers, but I stand by my belief that moving to the tonic minor is best for wind students.

On a piano, so much of what the students are learning is fingering patterns when learning scales. This is understandable when you look at a piano keyboard and think about fingerings when moving from white to black keys and then back to white. Depending on the scale you are playing, the finger patterns you use will vary to fit the black and white keys.

Finger patterns are an issue on our wind instruments, but black and white is just not a thing. Instead, we must be concerned with a wind instrument that is at best an approximation in sound of what that scale should be. With woodwinds the fingers certainly have patterns but the sounds all have to be “massaged” a bit to put them in the correct places. With the brass instruments, the pitching problem is even worse as it is possible to put down all the correct fingers and get none of the pitches even remotely correct. This is due to having to deal with finding the correct harmonic as well as the correct fingers.

On a piano, though, whether you get the finger patterns for a scale correct or not, the sounds will still come out the same as they did last time unless there is something seriously wrong with your piano! It seems kind of obvious that we should have seen that the method of learning on a piano will be different than a wind instrument simply for the fact that the problems of creating that series of sounds are fundamentally different between the two. As such, it is far more valuable, in the beginning at least, for young players to HEAR the difference between major and minor to be able to check if they are “doing it right.” Hence the need to shift to tonic minor instead of relative minor.

One final thought about these band technique books. I have also come to love the Foundations for Superior Performance book simply because when doing scales and technique studies, students do not need to flip pages to find the next exercise in the key you are working on. That seems kind of logical, and yet so many technique books are not arranged by keys, but rather by the type of study you are doing.

For example, if the students are playing major scales, they will be given all of the major scales on the same page. Ditto for minor scales, first in relative minors, then a page of harmonic minors, then a page of melodic minors. These books would often then progress in the same way through any following studies such as chords, arpeggios and so on. If the teacher is trying to learn a new key such as Db, then the students will be constantly flipping pages which wastes a significant chunk of class time.

The Foundations for Superior Performance book will put all of the Bb studies on the same page including the tonic minor, harmonic minor, melodic minor, and any subsequent chord and arpeggio studies. As the teacher, you can move through those studies in one key centre just so much faster and then get on with the music that you want to play. The next page will have Eb studies, and then Ab studies, and so on. That just seems to make better sense and is one of the many reasons that I have loved this book the most.

Even if you never really get into the Foundations for Superior Studies book like I did, try moving from the major scale to the tonic minor in whatever technique book you are using. Don’t even worry about flipping pages to find it, but instead just show the students how to flatten 3, 6, & 7 to hear the tonic minor. Then, when they have that figured out, show them how to turn that tonic minor into the harmonic minor by raising the 7th back up. Listen for the flattened third and the larger leap at the top.

Finally show them how to create the melodic minor by raising 6 and 7 on the way up, and lowering them on the way down while keeping the 3rd flattened. You could have your students switch between those scales freely without looking at the music, just so long as you do not YET move to the relative minor and confuse them until the intellectual studies are complete.

Moving to the relative minor might be something you choose to do later, but during that initial recognition of major vs minor (and WHICH minor), keep the tonic pitch the same. Once they can hear the structure of the scales, then it will be acceptable to move to the relative minor to explain the relationship of key signatures in major and minor scales.

Then, once students have mastered recognizing major and all forms of minor scales, you could start discussing the structures of major and minor scales. This discussion is dependent on students knowing what Tones and Semitones (Whole Step & Half Step) are and being able to hear the difference between them. Once they can recognize Tones and Semitones, you can then begin to teach them the order of tones and semitones.

Most music teachers should be able to recognize and demonstrate to students that a major scale structure is    T  T  ST  T  T  T  ST.  Students can then be shown that a natural (unaltered) minor scale is   T  ST  T  T  ST  T  T.   When students are recognizing the differences in sound between the major and the minor scales, it is these orders of tones and semitones that they are recognizing. To be more precise, it is the location of the semitones that they should be listening for. Further studies in minor scales will recognize the structures of the harmonic minor scale with its “Tone + Semitone" at the top, and the structure of the melodic minor scale with its different ascending and descending versions of the scale.

Many teachers at this point will likely suggest that this discussion about moving from the major to tonic vs major to relative minor is kind of moot since so many students today just cannot play at that level right now anyway. I would suggest a few things to those comments.

First, they might be right. But I know that if I never teach any particular concept to my students it pretty much guarantees that they will not know it. I also know that if I can find a way to teach it to students with better success and less confusion, then I owe it to my students to do so. Try presenting minor scales to your students using the tonic minor, and see if it helps. If it does improve your students understanding and recognition of minor scales, then have another look at Foundations for Superior Performance by Jeff King and Richard Williams. Trust me when I say it will be worth it!

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