Making sense of tonality

This term at the Language School I am revisiting a project idea that I developed in my first year at this school (about five years ago now). It is a way that I try to create understanding among the students about tonal relationships between notes, and give them information that will help them compose melodies that have a sense of shape and tonal balance to them.

Here is the basic tonality premise that I wanted to give them: A key signature or tonality brings with it a strength or sense of ‘home-ness’ to particular notes. The tonic has a strength that makes it good finishing point, for example. The notes of the triad have a similar sense of groundedness to them. Other notes of the scale, if played at the end of a phrase, will sound less complete. But melodies sound interesting if they include a mixture of triad notes and other notes.

In a class of new arrivals, who are only just beginning to learn English, I don’t want to get into these explanations. Too many words! Too much new language will bog us down, and slow the task down – and I find that ESL/new arrival children need to have glimmers of success appear early on in new tasks, to give them confidence and a sense that they are on the right track. Therefore I decided to explain the concepts using language they already know.

“Who in your family is the boss, would you say? The person who tends to make lots of the decisions, who often has the last word?”

In answer to this, the children usually suggest it is their mum or their dad. I go on to ask, “Is there someone else who also decides lots of things, and is important in running everything, but doesn’t always get the final say?” Yes, they tell me (it is usually the other parent, or a grandparent or aunt/uncle, if they are living in an extended family).

I explain that in music there are families of notes. (I work with modes at this point, using only the white notes of the keyboard/xylophone/glockenspiel, because (a) this suits the instruments we have available to use, (b) it is easier for them to grasp the concept if they don’t have to remember not to hit one of the white notes in favour of a black note in certain key signatures; and (c) I love the sound of modal music, and the harmonic possibilities they offer. The children respond well to the melodies they create too).

For example:

The ‘D’ family of notes has D as its ‘boss’, or ‘last-word’ person. ‘A’ and ‘F’ also have some influence, but not as much as ‘D’. All the other notes between D and D are like the children – interesting, colourful, individual characters. They get to put their word in, but they don’t tend to get the last word.

I set them to work in groups, and ask them to come up with a melody (or a rhythm, with an order of notes). I ask them to start on one of the three strong notes (D, F or A), but that the last note of their melody should be D (the ‘last-word’ note). Before they set to work I give them some examples, where I ask them to choose which note I should start on, whether I should go up or down from it, and when I should finish. I found last week that after around 5 examples from me, key students in the class were starting to nod, and were beginning to grasp the task.

One of the challenges of this task is to do with memory. The students need to be able to remember what they play, if they are to be able to repeat it to the rest of the class. Also, because I had them working in groups and asked them to compose only ONE melody per group, they had to be able to memorise a melody that someone else in the group may have invented. However, I think this additional challenge is incredibly valuable. It makes them pay attention to their efforts, and make judicious, thoughtful decisions. For some students, it was incredibly difficult to get the hang of memorising the music – they were not used to holding individual notes in their head, in order, without instruction from the teacher. I wonder if they didn’t really credit their own efforts as being ‘memory-worthy’?

In our class we developed three quite delightful melodies using these rules. Each one is in a different mode (D-dorian, G-mixolydian, and F-lydian). We will weave these into a larger class project that is exploring the children’s journeys to Australia. We’ll add words to some of the melodies, others will remain as instrumental music.

We completed this task in a 90 minute lesson and the students were very focused throughout. They were also very pleased with themselves and their creations by the end of the task.

I have developed a number of strategies for composing melodies with young new arrivals and ESL/ELL students – several of these make use of chance processes. I like the above approach because it gives the students some information with which to get started on their own melodic invention – when they follow the rules or criteria I give them, they hear how it results in a melody that has a satisfying balance and shape.


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