It’s the 21st Century. We’ve had modulations and chromaticisms, bitonalities and even atonlities, and you’d think that in 2011 we’d have a modicum of sophistication regarding the tonal centres and key relationships we discover in the music we play.
But no, an insistence that the key signature tells us the tonal centre of a piece of music has gone from being an example of anachronism to being a deplorable trend in most major Australian cities (!).
To be fair, we do call those congregations of accidentals at the beginning of each line of music a key signature; that is, this term implies that the accidentals signify a key rather than simply the notes required to be played a tone or semitone higher than the straight note name pitch. But in a post-atonal, neo-modal world it defies experience to assume that an absence of key signature signifies the C Major/A minor duopoly.
Imagine my horror/bemusement/outrage/despair some 10 years ago on seeing a well-respected examination board describe a piece they’d included in their syllabus as being ‘in C’ simply because there were no flats or sharps in the key signature (and precious few in the music itself). If the writer of their teaching notes had played the music through they could surely, surely have been in no doubt that the piece began and ended on a G, and that G was ‘home’ in the way that only tonic can be.
As egregious as this error was I’ve been noticing a far worse trend in the past twelve months: examiners who mark students wrong when they correctly identify the key of a signature-less piece of music as being other than C Major/A minor.
A teacher in Melbourne told me of a student presenting a Christopher Norton piece that is clearly in F Major (the left hand part consists of a descending F Major scale pattern, for goodness sake, played twice, and then that’s the end of the piece) whose report came back announcing that the student had failed to identify the piece as being in C Major. A teacher in Brisbane told me of a student presenting my piece, Safari, whose report came back saying that the student had incorrectly named the key as E flat minor [you'll notice there are only 5 flats in the key signature?!].
I’ve also had conversations with examiners who think a piece with one flat cannot be in the Dorian mode, even though the first and last bass notes are G (and G is clearly the home note); examiners who think that music with uniformly altered notes are still in the unaltered major or minor tonality; and examiners who fail to notice that pieces are in the Mixolydian mode.
This is a massive problem for assessment boards, for teachers, and for students who take their studies seriously. Examiners should not be the last to the party in music education, and it’s just embarrassing to think that teachers are having to explain to young students that they shouldn’t waste their emotional energy on the ignorant comments in the General Knowledge section of their piano exam reports.
Composers are going to keep writing music that doesn’t comform to the theory exam expectations; teachers understand this, and put considerable effort into understanding for themselves (and into teaching their students to understand) the way the composer is working.
The difference for the examination boards is that, for their integrity as assessment providers to be maintained, every single one of their examiners has to be up-to-the-moment in their comprehension of contemporary tonal languages. That’s just not the case at the moment.
It’s honestly not all that hard in most contemporary pieces:
- which note feels like it’s the note the piece started on?
- which note feels like it’s the note the piece ought to end on?
- are the answers to these questions the same note? If yes, this is absolutely, without doubt, your tonal centre.
- Now you know the tonal centre, is the piece in a mode? If yes, figure out which one.
- If the piece is not in a mode, then just leave your answer at “the tonal centre is X” – that is sufficient for 2011 music assessments.