Rethinking the Teaching of Minor Scales and Keys

Paul J. Telesco

In a recent issue of the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, Timothy Smith reviewed Earl Henry's Sight Singing book and took the occasion to briefly discuss his own vexation with the so-called three forms of minor. He succinctly summed up his solution: "Inform students that all dominant functions in minor are: (a) borrowed from the parallel major, (b) signaled by the appearance of "ti" which is (c) often approached from a borrowed "la," and leave well enough alone." I would like to pick up where Smith left off and further explore the problems inherent in this "three forms" approach, expand the discussion to include the corollary topic of the equally flawed method of teaching minor scales and keys through their relative majors, and conclude by proposing a different approach, illustrated by a model textbook unit. There is no disputing that minor is more complicated than major. The question is, how does one account for the variables in the most efficient yet comprehensive way. I maintain that the traditional way of teaching three separate forms of minor, and the relative key approach, are neither. In this paper I am arguing for (1) teaching minor scales as a single composite scale form (more or less derived from the Aeolian mode) that incorporates two sixth and seventh scale degrees, and (2) emphasizing to a much greater degree the relationship between parallel major and minor keys, and conversely de-emphasizing the relationship between relative major and minor keys, especially with respect to learning key signatures. Following a brief examination and critique of several widely used music-theory and aural-skills texts, I present a model that exemplifies the approach I am advocating. This is not meant to be an exhaustive review of undergraduate texts, nor an attempt to single out these texts alone for criticism, but rather an endeavor to determine how the subject is typically dealt with and how it might be improved. I suspect the textbook authors themselves may be somewhat conflicted and not entirely pleased with their presentations, but feel bound by tradition and marketability to keep it fairly standard. This survey demonstrates that almost all the presentations are to some degree contradictory, trying to incorporate a sophisticated account of the generation and role of the two sixth and seventh scale degrees, while at the same time falling back on the three-forms approach.