Major Minor

L7: Shifting between Major & Minor

Lesson Goals:

  • Changes of mode within a composition

Fluid Shifts Between Major and Minor

One of the characteristic features of tonality is that both the tonic note and the mode can change within a composition. For example, a piece that begins in A minor may end in B major. Sometimes this happens in a very stable and decisive way, so that we have a clear sense that the key has changed. At other times, however, this change may be weak and temporary.

Key 1 → (Key 2) → Key 1

Although the music sounds as if it has a new tonic or a new mode, we can tell that this is a brief excursion. We know that the old tonic and mode will soon return and that what we are hearing should be understood as a colorful shading, not a full-blown change.

Sometimes these shifts occur fairly suddenly, as in the following example taken from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. In major overall, it shifts to minor for a few phrases and then returns to major. The video will show the shifts back and forth between major and minor.

Video Example 1: "Come away"

In the next example, from Schubert's Impromptu in G-flat major, there are several shifts back and forth between major and minor. The first few are very weak; some people might argue that minor never really gets established at all.

Major → (Minor) → Major

The final shift into minor is much more decisive and abrupt.

Major → Minor ~ Major

The music is clearly in minor for a few phrases. But when it shifts back to major it is with a marvelous subtlety and fluidity. Though the fade out on the video fails to do it justice, it is an apt illustration.

Video Example 2: Schubert Impromptu in G-flat, opening

As a final training opportunity for the listener with a good grasp of major and minor, the next learning environment will allow you to practice deciding which mode prevails in examples that have at least one shift between major and minor.

Lesson 7 Summary


Trainer 7