Tonal music is organized in terms of keys. When we say that some music is in a particular key we mean that the music is organized in a certain way around a central pitch, the tonic, and that a scale that has the same tonic as the key will be used as the main source of pitches. Just as the major scale that has C as its first note is called the C major scale, so music that takes C as its central note and uses the C major scale for its primary pitch material is said to be "in the key of C major."
From Major and Minor Triads to Major and Minor Keys: A Review
In the previous lesson we stated that hearing major and minor keys involves a cognitive leap, a less clear-cut judgment than hearing major scales and triads. It is unfortunately not the case that in a major key, for example, all of the triads used are major. Major and minor keys each contain almost equal numbers of major and minor triads.
Major and Minor Keys
The steps taken thus far in laying out ways of hearing major and minor in thirds, scales, triads, and cadences have been intended to prepare you for a final leap in hearing. In the end, hearing whether a whole piece of music (or a section of a piece) is in major or minor is not a matter of analyzing specific cues but of learning through experience how to recognize general, holistic attributes. The experience of learning to distinguish major and minor keys is comparable to that of learning to distinguish between families of instruments. It would be impossible to convey adequately to someone the differences between strings and woodwinds solely by verbal explanation. To learn to distinguish strings from woodwinds you must practice listening to many examples of each.
If you have learned to hear major and minor in scales, triads, and cadences, then there is not much other than lots of practice that will help you to hear major and minor keys. Before giving you a chance to practice, though, here are a few examples. Each example features a familiar tune which is originally in major. The versions on the left feature the original tunes, while the ones on the right have been transposed into the minor. In each case, the only difference between the two will be the mode. Listening for comparison should help you to understand this difference.
Finally, here is an example of the reverse: the original tune is in minor, and the altered version is in major.
At this point, review any of the preceding material with which you feel less confident. When you are ready, enter the training environment to practice distinguishing between major and minor keys in larger musical units. Don't be too easily discouraged. If you feel that you are guessing, listen several times after making your guess (and after finding out the correct answer) to let the majorness or minorness of each example sink into your ears. If after a while you feel that you are not making progress, it may be useful to review this lesson, previous lessons, or to practice more with some of the earlier training environments.
Lesson 6 Summary