How to determine the tonality of a piece: we determine it by ear and by notes.

To know how to determine the tonality of a work, you first need to understand the concept of “tonality.” You are already familiar with this term, so I’ll just remind you without delving into the theory.

Tonality – in general, is the pitch of the sound, in this case – the pitch of the sound of any scale – for example, major or minor. A mode is the construction of a scale according to a certain scheme and, in addition, a mode is a specific sound coloring of a scale (major mode is associated with light tones, minor mode is associated with sad notes, shadow).

The height of each particular note depends on its tonic (the main sustained note). That is, the tonic is the note to which the fret is attached. The mode, in interaction with the tonic, gives tonality – that is, a set of sounds arranged in a certain order, located at a specific height.

How to determine the tonality of a piece by ear?

It is important to understand that not at any moment of the sound you can say with accuracy what tone a given part of the work sounds in. Need to select individual moments and analyze them. What are these moments? This can be the very beginning or the very end of a work, as well as the end of a section of a work or even a separate phrase. Why? Because the beginnings and ends sound stable, they establish the tonality, and in the middle there is usually a movement away from the main tonality.

So, having chosen a fragment for yourself, pay attention to two things:

  1. What is the general mood in the work, what mood is it – major or minor?
  2. What sound is the most stable, what sound is suitable to complete the work?

When you determine this, you should have clarity. It depends on the type of inclination whether it is a major key or a minor key, that is, what mode the key has. Well, the tonic, that is, the stable sound that you heard, can simply be selected on the instrument. So, you know the tonic and you know the modal inclination. What else is needed? Nothing, just connect them together. For example, if you heard a minor mood and the tonic of F, then the key will be F minor.

How to determine the tonality of a piece of music in sheet music?

But how can you determine the tonality of a piece if you have sheet music in your hands? You probably already guessed that you should pay attention to the signs on the key. In most cases, using these signs and the tonic, you can accurately determine the key, because the key signs present you with a fact, offering only two specific keys: one major and one parallel minor. Exactly what tonality in a given work depends on the tonic. You can read more about key signs here.

Finding tonic can be challenging. Often this is the last note of a piece of music or its logically completed phrase, a little less often it is also the first. If, for example, a piece begins with a beat (an incomplete measure preceding the first), then often the stable note is not the first, but the one that falls on the strong beat of the first normal full measure.

Take the time to look at the accompaniment part; from it you can guess which note is the tonic. Very often the accompaniment plays on the tonic triad, which, as the name implies, contains the tonic, and, by the way, the mode too. The final accompaniment chord almost always contains it.

To summarize the above, here are a few steps you should take if you want to determine the key of a piece:

  1. By ear – find out the general mood of the work (major or minor).
  2. Having notes in your hands, look for signs of alteration (at the key or random ones in places where the key changes).
  3. Determine the tonic – conventionally this is the first or last sound of the melody, if it does not fit – determine the stable, “reference” note by ear.

It is hearing that is your main tool in solving the issue that this article is devoted to. By following these simple rules, you will be able to determine the tonality of a piece of music quickly and correctly, and later you will learn to determine the tonality at first sight. Good luck!

By the way, a good hint for you at the initial stage can be a cheat sheet known to all musicians – the circle of fifths of major keys. Try using it – it’s very convenient.

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