Teaching Beyond Major-Minor

Disclaimer: if you live in the 19th century or earlier this post 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 operating according to the dominant paradigms of classical praxis. 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 fit all rubric of 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 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:

  1. Mixolydian. 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.
  2. Lydian. 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.
  3. Dorian. 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.
  4. Phrygian. 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.
  5. Harmonic on the 5th degree. 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!
  6. The Simpsons Scale. Well, that’s what I call it. 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.
And those are just the first six I’d recommend. But practicing these 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. And so forth. Choosing music with these patterns means that students are playing music that sounds genuinely contemporary, relevant and engaging.
To be continued…

12 thoughts on “Teaching Beyond Major-Minor

  1. Thank you for this post! I’ve always been introducing students to different ‘tonalities’ by making up different finger exercises, and am just so excited to see your No.5 (Harmonic on the 5th) & No.6 (Simpsons) scales. Your suggestions really make us ‘traditionally’ trained piano teachers think outside the box. Oh, and my students and their parents all love “The Sad Farmer”. It’s great to be able to introduce them to such yummy sound with a familiar tune, and once the idea of changing the tonality is instilled, the possibilities are just endless! Thanks Elissa!! ^_^

    • Anna, thanks for the feedback on “The Sad Farmer”! And that’s a pattern I didn’t include in this post!!!

  2. Here’s a thought: Practice noodling around the modes in the right hand over chords that fit in the left.
    D Dorian = Dm7, G7
    G Mixolydian = G, F, G, F with a Scottish feel or G7 boogie bass
    Fifth mode of D harmonic minor = A, Bb, C, Bb with a root/5th bass line – nice tension between scale and chord on C – very ethnic… Ole!

    • Great idea Bradley, and I’m sure teachers who are comfortable with noodling will love playing around with these suggestions!!

      I’ve been meeting a lot of teachers recently who find the whole thing (the noodling as well as the modes and other scales) completely outside their experience. For teachers who think that ‘noodling’ sounds a bit tricky for them at this stage it’s worth knowing that playing through these other scales will start to open their ears to the possibilities – and maybe they’ll find themselves improvising sometime down the track!

  3. Great post, Elissa. I think the habit of only teaching major and minor scales comes from the fact that they have served a sufficient purpose for so long – that is mastering a fingering pattern and increasing scale speed. Anything beyond the habits of technique is only useful for improvising and composing – something most teachers don’t have the skills to teach. That’s the catch. A pianist who can’t improvise is like a painter who can only copy. All that technique is wasted, in my opinion, if it can’t serve a creative purpose. I also like the idea of thinking about “nontonal” works as having a unique tonality. George Perle composed with this expressly in mind, but the idea is especially relevant in Jazz and world music. We should teach more world music.

  4. Marvellous post Elissa. I often think limiting ourselves and our students to major/harmonic minor/melodic minor scales is unfortunate. For any teachers that use an iPad I recommend getting an app that demonstrates all kinds of scales (Arabian, Chinese, Blues etc) and encouraging students to be creative and improvise/noodle/muck around using only those notes. All of a sudden scales become less of a chore, and more a palette from which to paint!

    For those who aren’t terribly confident modally, try playing the following:

    F lydian > F major > F mixolydian > F dorian > F natural minor (aeolian) > F phrygian (and finally to F locrian for the super-adventurous!)

    Playing them in this order starts with the most “major” sounding mode, progressing through the darker and “minor” sounding modes. It also indirectly follows the circle of 5ths by adding a B flat, then E flat, then A flat etc.

  5. Hi, I was trying to remember the simpsons scale from your workshop in Rocky yesterday, and here it is explained again. Thanks for this, Will have to start adding them to my new practise program. The workshop with you and Christopher was really motovational. Thanks again.

  6. Elissa,

    When I was a lad in the 1960s, I learned from the Pace method during the first few years of study. The Pace method include an introduction to modes beyond our standard major and minor. I wonder why that rich palette seems to have disappeared from early training.

    • Hmm, I’ve never heard of the Pace method – something for me to get researching! And yes, it’s intriguing that piano methods have resisted tonal diversity so assiduously….

  7. Chopin was apparently a fan of the E lydian scale (think that’s what it’s called): ie. E F# G# A# B C# D# E as it’s the most natural scale to play for the hands given the arrangement of black and white notes and where the fingers sit over the keyboard. I’m going to try this as a first scale when I pick up beginners and see what happens!

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