Ear Training Skill 2: Finding the Tonal Center

The topic of keys is covered in the Level 1 Theory Primer, so I won't discuss it here except to say that for now we'll limit ourselves to working in major keys. The important point at this juncture is this: when you hear a typical melody, your mind automatically organizes the notes around a tonal center, the tonic of the key of the song. In solfege syllables that tonal center would usually be expressed as "do"; in scale degrees it is 1. Since everything else in the melody is organized around 1, it is critical that you be able to find that pitch before trying to learn the rest of the melody.

To get a feel for what's involved here, try this exercise. The audio sample below is the first half of the familiar round Are You Sleeping / Frère Jacques. Listen to the audio sample in the left hand column, then "sing" (in your mind or with your voice) the pitch that seems to provide the tonal foundation of the phrase, the pitch you would call 1 or "do". Do this entirely without the use of your guitar. Then click on the highlighted text to the right of each sample and you'll hear the tonal center. See if your pitch matches this one.

Well? If you found the right tonal center, congratulations! If you didn't, the most likely mistake to have made is to have chosen the last note of the fragment. That's because the fragment ends on the 5th scale degree (scale degrees being another topic covered in the Theory Primer), which is easy to confuse with 1. Perhaps you'll find it easier to locate 1 if you hear the entire song. Let's see. Just to keep your ears awake I've transposed the melody to a new key. Listen to the audio of Frere Jacques, sing 1/do, then check that pitch against the Tonal Center audio to the right in the table below.

Better that time? Unlike the fragment you listened to first, the full melody ends on 1, so that note is more clearly highlighted as the final place of melodic rest. That, after all, is the defining characteristic of the tonic of the key: it's the arrival point, the resting place within the key. Home.

In the next step of the process you are going to relate all the notes of the melody to this one, the tonal center. That means you will need a way to occasionally refresh your memory of that note. The easiest way to do that is to find it on your guitar so you can play it back to yourself whenever you need to. This is the one and only role of your guitar during the process of learning a phrase by ear: to refresh your ear's memory of the tonic.

To find the tonic on your guitar, I would suggest the following process:

  • Sing the note (whether audibly or in your mind alone).
  • Then move up a single string (a higher string will work best) one fret at a time, playing each note as you go. When you hit the one that matches your pitch, you're there. If it isn't obvious to you, I'm sure that with a little sleuthing you can name that note. (If not, refer to the Theory Primer for how to name the notes on the fretboard.)

Try that process with the tonal center of the last (that is, the complete) version of Frere Jacques from the table above. When you think you've identified the note by name, scroll your mouse over that big X you see to the right and it will, like magic, reveal the truth to one and all.

If you'd like a little more practice at recognizing the tonal center of a piece of music, try the examples in the table below. If, on the other hand, you are feeling pretty confident in this department, proceed to the next step in the process, Skill 3: Relating the notes of a melody to the tonal center.

Audio of Tonal Center
Mouse Over for Note Name
Acres of Clams
Goober Peas
When The Saints Go Marching In
Aura Lee
Yankee Doodle
Yellow Rose of Texas

Ready now? On to Skill 3: Relating the notes of a melody to the tonal center as scale degrees.


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