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Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Teaching Major and Minor

To be honest I was shocked to realize recently that I've never written a blog post on my favorite ways to teach major and minor- I love teaching tonality in my upper elementary grades! It's so much fun when they finally start to get it. They always seem to feel like they've unlocked the mysteries of the universe! Here are a few of my favorite ways to teach the difference between major and minor.

1. Demonstrate familiar songs in both tonalities

I think the easiest way to demonstrate the difference between major and minor is to take a song students already know that is originally major and show them what it would sound like in a minor key. When I'm first introducing the concept I'll play a few different major and minor chords and scales on the piano for them to get the basic idea, then I play something simple like "Twinkle Twinkle" in the original major key and then change it to minor (added bonus= students always think I'm a genius when I whip this out). I also use youtube videos that do this exact thing: I love showing the original "What a Wonderful World" and then this minor version by Chase Holfelder, and this compilation of major songs turned minor AND minor songs turned major by The Gregory Brothers (note: I don't show this whole video- some of the songs included in the compilation I'm not comfortable showing in 4th/5th grade- but it's perfect to show an excerpt). These videos are also a good opportunity to tease out what else besides the tonality they've changed to make them sound happy or sad.

2. Sing and play 2 similar songs

One of my favorite ways to really get students to experience the difference between major and minor, once they've got the basic idea, is to have them sing and play instrumental accompaniment with 2 songs- one major and one minor- with a similar theme. For example when I do this in the fall with 5th grade, we compare the song "Down, Down, Yellow and Brown" and "Autumn Leaves Are Falling". They're both actually songs meant to be done with much younger children, but that makes them perfect to learn both very quickly, and add accompaniment parts on barred instruments really easily, in one lesson to compare and contrast the two. I've done this other times of year with other themes, but the key is to pick really simple songs that can be learned quickly to get to the concept of tonality.

3. Listening examples

Obviously there's no substitute for listening to lots of different examples of major and minor tonalities. I actually like to take current songs students are familiar with from social media or the radio, but there are also really great collections on youtube like this one that I've used in sub lessons because it will play several in a row and give the answer after each one. Either way, I really try to find examples of minor songs that are fast and major songs that are slow, minor songs that have high notes and major songs that have low notes to try to throw them off and also get them to really focus in on the tonality and not just the immediate impression of happy vs sad. One great example is "Someone Like You" by Adele- most people will confidently say that song is minor but it's actually major! They don't believe me until I show them this minor version, then they hear the contrast. It always leads to really great conversations about why a composer would choose a major key for a song with those lyrics. "Panini" by Lil Nas X is a great example of a song everyone thinks is major but is actually minor.

These are all activities that I include in lessons starting in the middle of 4th grade into 5th grade, when we start getting into composing melodies in minor, and we continue to review with more and more complexity through 6th grade. I find that when I first introduce the concept they are easily thrown off if I play a minor chord on high notes or play a major song softly, but by 6th grade, my students are very good at distinguishing the two tonalities and it becomes almost second nature. If you want to see how I weave this concept into my upper elementary lessons, here is my curriculum set!

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