Learn How To Instantly Feel the Tonality in Any Piece of Music


in Composition, Methods

You can begin to instantly feel the tonality in any piece of music. Here is a simple exercise that you can do anytime you listen to music. Try it first with very simple music like Christmas carols, folk songs, country music, children’s songs, etc.

The exercise consists of trying to consciously feel the song’s tonality and the tonal center:

1.  Listen to the song with your full attention for about a minute. Don’t think about anything else. Just relax and enjoy the song and really listen.

2.  Shut off the music if you can, or move away from it physically so that you don’t hear it so loudly anymore. (Do this quickly because we don’t want to lose the sensation of the music in our mind.)

3.  Sing a note that you can clearly remember from the song. It could be the last note you heard or it could be the sound of any particular word or phrase. But try to remember the sensation of one particular note and sing it to yourself.

4.  Now try to imagine a note one step lower than this one. But don’t think about it too much! If you think too hard you will be able to imagine some other scale that has nothing to do with the music you just listened to. Just relax and move downward to whatever seems to be the next lower note you hear in your mind. Then move down another note, then another, etc.

5.  Keep coming down until you reach what you feel to be the most “final” note of the whole bunch. This is the note that makes you feel a sensation of permanent relaxation. For example when the song ends, this note would be a good choice for the last note.

Clarifying a Song's Tonality

If you can get as far as step 4, and you are able to clearly imagine a whole series of notes after listening to a song, then what you have clarified for yourself is the song’s tonality. Essentially, you have abstracted from the song the seven notes from which the entire song is made. As you move down through your singing range you might actually sing a lot more than seven notes. But all you are really doing is simply repeating the 7 notes of the tonality in different octaves.

You may not realize that there are exactly seven notes but that doesn’t matter right now. The exciting thing about this exercise is simply discovering that the notes which make up the entire harmonic environment of a song become automatically separated, organized and stored in your subconscious mind whenever you listen to music.

This means that despite the bewildering jumble of sounds and sensations flooding in through your ears, somewhere in your mind there is a set of seven neat little boxes where you will find precisely the seven notes from which the entire song is made. This is an organizational feat that you could never pull off consciously.

It would be impossible to consciously recognize and sort out the notes that make up all those chords and melodies. But even absolute beginners (including little children) can perfectly sing the seven notes that make up the tonality of any song, simply by relaxing and allowing themselves to imagine whatever notes “occur to them.” Take advantage of this internal process that is available to you. Look within yourself to clarify the notes that make up the tonality of every song you hear. You don’t have to name the notes or understand them in any way. Just hear them in your mind and sing them to yourself.

Feeling the tonal center

Step 5 of the exercise challenges you to decide for yourself which of the seven notes is the tonal center. This may or may not be clear to you. If you don’t feel any particular note as the tonal center, then just turn the music back on again. As you listen to the music, ask yourself the question, “Which of these notes or chords sounds like the ground floor of the song’s harmony, the place where everything is relaxed and final?” If you still don’t feel it, just keep listening.

Almost every song ends by returning to the tonal center. So you can actually teach yourself what the tonal center feels like just by waiting until the end of every song and noticing that moment. The sensation you have in your body when you hear the last chord of a song is what the tonal center feels like.

Now you won’t always be successful in performing this exercise with any particular song. In fact in your first few attempts you might not even get past step 3 (imagining clearly one single note from the song). But if that’s as far as you get in the beginning, then just keep taking the exercise to step 3.

The important thing is to be actively in search of these sensations within yourself. Remember that it is not about guessing how the music works. It’s about noticing what the music is already doing inside your body.

Once you are able to connect with the seven notes of a song's tonality inside your own mind, you can even try improvising your own melodies with these notes! All you have to do is allow yourself to drift gently from one note to another while the music plays in the background. You will notice that some notes attract your ear more than others as the chords in the background change. You don't need to understand the details of why this happens. You can just enjoy letting yourself flow with the music, moving around between the different notes that you can clearly hear in your mind. Many people who have never sung an improvised melody in their lives are astounded to discover that they can do it effortlessly, just as soon as they are able to hear these notes that seem to appear magically inside our own musical imagination.

How to play any song you hear

Now you are probably wondering what all of this has to do with learning how to instantly play any piece of music you hear. The answer lies in simply taking our contemplation of the seven notes one step further: we learn to name them. We can't assign them absolute names like F# or Bb, because that's a different matter altogether and it has nothing to do with how music really works. But once we get to know the seven sensations that are contained within any tonality, we can name these sensations directly and recognize them in any piece of music.

Finally, in order to play these sounds on our instrument, all we have to do is discover where each of these sensations is located in any particular key. We do this by studying and contemplating the major scale, which is the origin of these seven sensations. In other words, those seven sounds that seem to magically appear in your mind whenever you hear a piece of music are actually the seven notes of the major scale. Understanding this is the key to being able to recognize both the notes and the chords in any piece of music you hear.

In summary, the key to understanding music by ear lies in making conscious use of two natural processes that occur automatically every time you hear a piece of music:

1.  Your subconscious mind imagines exactly seven notes that make up the song’s tonality.

2.  One of these notes attracts you especially as the tonal center.

Simply becoming aware of these processes is the first step to musical mastery.

David Reed is the creator of the “Improvise for Real” teaching method, which empowers students to discover harmony for themselves by experiencing it directly. Instead of memorizing rules and formulas, students of Improvise for Real learn to enter and explore the world of harmony on their own, and enjoy the thrill of creating their own original music with all of the beautiful sounds that they discover. If you would like to learn how to use this consciousness as a basis for a complete approach to improvisation and composition, you can learn more at www.ImproviseForReal.com

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