Tonality Tutoring Session 1

Tonality Tutoring Session

By Andy Mullen 

MLT, Theory

Several of my students were asking for some help with the tonalities. How do I know which one is which? How do I keep them all straight? What are some ways to "get into" a tonality?

In an effort to answer these questions, I went "live" on YouTube to try to offer some assistance with a Tonality Tutoring Session

Four Ways to "Get Into" a Tonality

In the video, I explain 4 ways to ground oneself in a new tonality. 

Getting Into a New Tonality

  • Sing the Tonal Sequence
  • Audiate and sing the essential pitches of the tonality
  • Audiate and sing the essential harmonic functions
  • Have a "Go To" song in each tonality

By going through each these 4 steps, the pitches and harmonic functions - the essence of each tonality - will start to become as normal as Major after awhile. 

The Tonal Sequence

Dr. Gordon created a standardized Tonal Sequence for MLT teachers to use before beginning tonal Learning Sequence Activities. This tonal sequence served the purpose of establishing tonality so that patterns weren't happening out of context. (Think of it as a brief "Whole.")

Remember This Phone Number!

In my summer certification course for the Gordon Institute of Music Learning, my instructor, Dr. Alison Reynolds, provided us a useful trick for remembering the Tonal Sequence. She advised us to think of it as phone number: 565-4327 (extension 1). 

If we sing those scale degrees with solfege in a tonality (for example, in major: So La So Fa Mi Re Ti Do), those are all of the pitches inherent in a tonality. It is very useful to get the essence of the tonality. 

Audiate and Sing Essential Pitches

Once you have sung the Tonal Sequence, I find it's helpful to stress and repeat the pitches in each tonality that define each tonality. 

Essential Pitches

  • Major = Do-Ti; Mi-Fa
  • Minor = La-Si; Mi-Fa
  • Dorian = Re-Do; La-Ti
  • Mixolydian = So-Fa; Ti-Do
  • Lydian = Do-Ti
  • Phrygian = Mi-Fa; Mi-Re
  • Aeolian = La-So; Mi-Fa
  • Locrian = Ti-La; Ti-Do

Audiate and Sing Essential Harmonic Functions

Inherent in each tonality are harmonic functions based on the unique way that thirds are stacked. 

Although each tonality contains 7 harmonic functions - one based on each pitch - there are usually 2-3 chords that tend to define the tonality and are used more often than others. 

For example, in Major and Minor, the 3 essential chords are I-IV-V and i-iv-V. 

Have a "Go To" Song in Each Tonality

When I first began my tonality journey, I thought of the modes as merely scales that one could use in Jazz Improvisation. I soon became aware that each mode (tonality) can also be a compositional canvas upon which one can paint a song.  

In those formative years, I found it necessary to have a "Go To" song in the more unfamiliar tonalities to jumpstart my audiation. 

Here are several "Go To" songs.

  • "Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star" [I, IV, V]
  • "When The Saints Go Marching In" [I, IV, V]
  • "Joshua Fought The Battle of Jericho" [i, V]
  • "The Sled" by Dr. Edwin Gordon [i, iv, V] [From "Music Play", available from GIA] [See Mr. Mullen use this song in his music class here.]
  • "Drunken Sailor" [i, VII]
  • "Snowflake" by Dr. Edwin Gordon [i, VII] [From "Music Play", available from GIA] [See Heather Shouldice use this song in her music class here.
  • "Who's The Cutest Baby?" [i and VII]. [From the CD, "Every Day Songs With Words."]
  • "Old Joe Clark" [I and VII]
  • "Pickles and Pie" by Dr. Beth Bolton [I, IV, VII] [From "Katangaroo"]
  • "Chucka Chucka Wawa" [I and VII]. [From the CD, "Chucka Chucka Wawa."]
  • "The Grasshopper and The Elephant" by Doug Nichols [i, II, vii] [Listen to a version here.]
  • "Poor Bengy (Benjie Met The Bear)" [i, vii, II] [Listen to a version here.]
  • "The Wind" [I, II, V] [From "Music Play", available from GIA]
  • "Lydian eTune #1" [I, II, V] [Listen here.]
  • TV Shows: "The Simpsons" and "The Jetsons"
  • "Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye" [i, III, VII, iv, v] [My favorite choral version of the song is arranged by Alice Parker. Listen here.]
  • "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin
  • "North and South" [iº and vii] [From "Music Play", available from GIA]


  • For a "Go To" Tune in each tonality, check out the Tonality Acculturation Playlist. These are short tunes in each tonality. 
  • For a quick reminder of each tonality, have a look at the video, "Tonality Jumper Cables."
  • Other books mentioned in the video: Experimental Songs and Chants, and Musicianship by Beth Bolton.  
  • Teachers interested in learning more about MLT and audiation should consider taking a summer course! More info can be found at

About the author, Andy Mullen

Andy Mullen is a teacher, folk musician, multi-instrumentalist, recovering singer-songwriter, and lifelong learner. He has taught all levels of students in a number of subjects, and is currently a middle school general music and choir teacher in Burlington, Massachusetts. Mr Mullen holds Masters degrees in Music Education and School Administration, and serves on the faculty for the Gordon Institute of Music Learning (GIML) in Elementary General Music and Choir. He is the author of "MLT Any Music Teacher Can Du...De," "The Literate Musician" and "Fifty Tunes for Teaching," and the composer of the children's album, "Chucka Chucka Wawa."

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