Tonal Content Learning Sequence

When teaching tonal content during learning sequence activities, the teacher is at any given time combining a level of skill learning sequence with a level of tonal content. Levels of tonal content are hierarchical in much the same way as levels of skill learning sequence. Each level of tonal content serves as a readiness for achieving the next higher level of tonal content.

Tonal Content

Tonal learning is facilitated by development of a sense of tonality and a vocabulary of tonal patterns. The tonal patterns used in learning sequence activities are organized according to tonality classification (major, minor, dorian, and so on) and tonal pattern function (tonic, dominant, subdominant, and so on). Tonalities and tonal functions are sequenced primarily according to familiarity. Major tonality, for example, is introduced first in both learning sequence activities and classroom activities because it is the most common tonality in western culture and, therefore, the most familiar. Likewise, tonic and dominant functions are introduced first because they are the most basic tonal functions in major tonality.


The term tonality traditionally refers to major and minor tonal systems, and the term modality refers to the other tonal systems that have evolved from the church modes (dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian, and locrian). In Music Learning Theory, all these systems are referred to as tonalities to provide a common term for all tonal systems sharing the characteristic of being audiated in relation to a resting tone. A resting tone is a tonal solfege syllable associated with a particular tonality. Do is the resting tone in major tonality, re in dorian tonality, mi in phrygian tonality, and so on. The term keyality refers to the pitch name (A or Bb, for example) that functions as the pitch center, or tonic, in a piece of music. Music in what is traditionally called the “key of Bb major,” for example, is in the tonality of major and the keyality of Bb.

Tonal Patterns

Most tonal patterns are arpeggiated, rather than diatonic. Arpeggiated tonal patterns are much better for developing audiation skills because students tend to imitate consecutive pitches a half step or whole step apart.

Tonal Solfege

Of the many tonal solfege systems available, the one best suited for developing audiation is the “moveable do with a la based minor” system. Among its merits:

  • Audiation of various tonalities is facilitated by associating a unique tonal syllable with each tonality (see above).
  • The internal logic of interval relationships is always maintained. The interval do – mi, for example, is always a major third regardless of context.
  • Eight solfege syllables suffice for all basic tonalities: major, harmonic minor, dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian, and locrian. The only chromatic syllable required for diatonic contexts in those eight tonalities is si, the leading tone in harmonic minor.

For a more thorough discussion of tonal solfege systems, see chapter ten of Learning Sequences in Music: Skill, Content, and Patterns published by GIA Publications.