Chapter 3 – Tonic/Collection and Solfège

Most music has some culturally agreed-upon frame of reference for its pitches. This frame of reference is like a map: it lists the possible locations one could go to and also indicates how these locations are connected.

There are many different ways this musical map is constructed within different cultures and subcultures, but the one we’ll focus on is typically called a key. (Much of our discussion will also be relevant to the diatonic modes.) Some of the principles we’ll work with here can be translated to different musical cultures, but it’s important to note that different systems often have different fundamental assumptions: for example, in a key or diatonic mode, we often describe notes as “locations” within a scale, but some cultures associate them with gestures, tunings, and decorations, and they may be thought of differently depending on where they “go” next.

It’s useful to think of a key as a combination of two things: a collection of notes, and a tonic, or the most important note. For example, the keys C major and A minor have the same collection of notes defined by their key signatures, but they have different tonics (C vs. A). C major and C minor have different collections of notes, but they have the same tonic.

Many people are reasonably accurate at listening to music and figuring out its general contour: whether it’s going “up” or “down,” and whether the size of that motion is small or large. But to figure out exact pitches, many people without absolute pitch benefit from using an internalized model of key to compare to the music to “measure” exactly what’s going on. Those with absolute pitch can also benefit from internalizing models of key because this is a significant element that imbues music with “meaning” and helps to define harmony (chord progressions).

The situation is similar when making music, particularly when sight-reading. If we get started at the right point in the scale and can follow up-and-down motion in the score, we’ll often perform most of the pitches accurately. But when leaps are large or awkward, that internalized model of key becomes important. And paying attention to where we are within that model helps us “shape” the music because certain notes and contexts have more “tension” than others.

Fortunately, if you’ve listened to and/or performed lots of music in a key, you have already started to internalize this map. We’ll simply work on making it more detailed and conscious, and making sure you know how to use it.

One final note: Several sections of this chapter draw on recommendations by pedagogue Gary Karpinski, author of the textbook Manual for Ear Training and Sight Singing and the pedagogy manual Aural Skills Acquisition. We are grateful to Karpinski’s pioneering work.


Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:

  1. Describe the elements that lead a note to sound like a tonic.
  2. Aurally determine the tonic of a nonmodulating melody or full musical texture.
  3. Sing scales using a chosen moveable-tonic solfège system.
  4. Mentally set up a key context around a desired note.
  5. Sing notes within a key, using syllables from a chosen moveable-tonic solfège system.
  6. Aurally determine whether a passage of music modulates or not, and hum the tonics.
  7. Mentally set up a new key, after having established an old one.

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