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Major and Minor Keys: Tonality in Music

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  • 0:47 Tonality
  • 1:39 Scales
  • 2:05 Major Tonality
  • 3:33 Minor Tonality
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

How does a movie's soundtrack enhance our emotions? Watch this video lesson to learn how musical tonality can express feeling in everything from movies to rock songs to operas.

Music in Everyday Life

Music is a part of everyday life, and it has the power to influence our feelings. We can usually recognize the intended emotion of a song even without the words. The feeling of music can also enhance the way we feel about a visual connection.

Commercials make us feel positive about products being sold, and movies would not be the same without a soundtrack. The carefully-crafted music helps the audience believe the story and pulls at their emotions. Gamers can also relate, as the background music will tell you if your little Italian plumber is happily collecting coins or is destined to meet a mini-boss. But how do we know which emotion to feel when? How can music evoke our feelings?

Tonality

The answer is tonality. Tonality is the character of the tones and harmonies of a piece of music. Tonality tells our ear if we are listening to cheerful, positive, joyful music or sad, dark, emotional music. What would it look and sound like if the character of the music didn't match the scene?

In the early days of film, music was an important element of foreshadowing the actions about to be seen onscreen. The damsel in distress is tied to the railroad tracks by the evil villain, just as the train is approaching in the distance. To most people, common sense would say that this is a serious or dramatic situation, yet the music implied a positive or pleasant situation. We still use tonality in movies today to convey a character's feelings or to foreshadow events. So how does tonality work?

Scales

Every tonality has its own special group of notes called a scale. The scale is a specific arrangement of notes. The arrangement of these notes is how we're able to identify a scale, both aurally and visually. The two most common tonalities in Western music are the major tonality and the minor tonality. You may think that 'major' and 'minor' are just words that go at the beginning of classical music pieces, but these words can help us describe the emotions we hear within the music.

Major Tonality

Listen to the major scale. The major tonality is generally thought of as cheerful, bright, majestic or joyful sounding. Songs that give a happy idea or a positive message tend to be major. Many pop songs, particularly by boy bands or artists looking to attract the hearts and dollars of young teenage girls, use the major scale. Several reggae songs also utilize the major tonality, which may make you think of relaxing on an island in the sun.

Even if these genres aren't your thing, you probably encounter the major scale on a daily basis. TV commercials will often use major music because they want you to feel good or think that you will experience positive results by using their products.

In movies, major music is typically used to portray emotions relating to happiness, love or a positive event in the story. When sailing on the Titanic, the main character proclaims to be 'king of the world,' and we hear major music in the background to reflect his triumphant feeling. He has no idea of the looming danger that lies ahead. A feel-good story or romantic comedy would also be an appropriate use of the major tonality. Occasionally, it can be used as irony, too, where the contrast of a major tonality and a negative story resolution point out the irony of a storyline.

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