Listen to the clips and try to identify the tonic. Try to apply what you have learned about minor cadences and how they can point you towards the tonic note.
Practice finding the tonic in a minor key
First try to hum or sing back the note you think is the tonic. Then find that note on your instrument and check if you had it right with the answers below.
Try to also identify the clip ending with a leading tone cadence and which one contains a Picardy Third.
Watch out! One of these is a trick question! Did you spot the major key?
Question 1: C
Question 2: D
Question 3: E
Question 4: D
Question 5: C
Question 6: D
Leading tone: Question 2
Picardy Third: Question 6
Major key was: Question 4
If you answered correctly, let’s move on to the next step: real music!
Practice with Real Music
Now it’s time to listen for the tonic in a minor key with real music recordings.
Listen to these examples and try to find the tonic.
(Don’t peek at the sheet music or look up the chords before you’ve found the tonic by ear!)
1. Beethoven – Für Elise
2. Mozart – Rondo alla turca
3. Cream – Sunshine Of Your Love
4. The Cranberries – Zombie
5. Nirvana – Come As You Are
2: A minor. You find the same i–V–i cadence in the left hand.
3: D minor. Hear the tonic at the start and end of the bass riff. The riff roughly follows the descending natural minor scale, with a little chromatic flourish and some skips and back-and-forths. Try playing by ear on your instrument!
4: E minor. Listen for how the verse melody begins on the tonic. The bridge “But you see / It’s not me” lands on the tonic (“see” and “me”), as does that memorable chorus line “In your head”.
5: E minor. The vocal melody actually begins on the fifth of the tonic chord, B. Don’t be misled! Listen to the bass riff, which walks up chromatically to begin the bar with the tonic: D, D, E♭, E.
Four Common Pitfalls When Identifying the Minor Tonic
With the variety of ways the tonic can be revealed in minor keys, it’s easy to get misled. Here are four common pitfalls to watch out for:
1. Major and minor keys are related, and composers will play with that.
“Für Elise” is a minor piece, but in the middle you find a bright sounding section in C major. But after a short walk in the sunshine, the ending note brings us back to minor.
2. The melody might end on another note which belongs to the tonic chord.
In this case, it’s better to identify the last chord of the song. Remember to listen for the lowest bass note. The Nirvana song above is a good example of this.
3. The piece might end with a Picardy Third.
The ending sounds bright, but the notes in the rest of the song belong to the minor scale. Therefore the song is in a minor key.
4. As in the case of major scales, there are also minor sounding songs that are actually modal songs.
The natural minor is known as the aeolian mode but there are many other common modes, including the popular dorian mode whose sound you can recognise as minor but with a touch of light. The Doors – Riders on the Storm is an example of the Dorian mode.
Hearing the tonic in minor keys
In conclusion, finding the tonic in minor keys is not hard, but you must listen carefully and keep in mind the multiple ways of ending a minor melody. When most of the melody uses the minor scale, consider the whole piece minor, even if it ends with a melodic minor scale or a Picardy Third.
Continue analysing as you listen to music, but don’t stop listening when you pick up your instrument. Talk to yourself, “Oh, now I’m playing a V dominant to i minor cadence in A Minor” or “This song is in F Minor and my line ends on the tonic each phrase” and so on. Verbalising the theoretical concept in your mind leads to deeper understanding in your brain and ears.
The harmonic structure of the minor cadences leads you to the tonic in many different ways when compared with major keys. Always follow your ears and when you can’t feel the attraction to the tonic, listen to the bass line. The bass (almost) never lies.
The tonic note is the most important note in any piece of music. It’s what defines your key, scale, and the notes which will sound “at home”. Extend your listening skills to spot the tonic by ear in minor keys and you will be truly versatile in your tonic-hearing capabilities!
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