[Smt-talk] Tests in Theory - Chords in Tonality versus Chords in a Scale

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Wed Jan 22 12:40:33 PST 2014

Dear Colleagues,

Some tests make the students list seven chords in a minor or major key. In my opinion this is wrong and it undermines the ability of the student to conceptualize the term "tonality" differently from the term "scale". While the core of tonality is the tone/chord content derived from the pure diatonic scales, a typical tonality is laid on a larger platform which includes both diatonic and chromatic elements.

Therefore, "list the seven chords in minor" is a confusing invitation which comes from nowhere and leads nowhere. Yet some authors cannot help making strict tables of seven triads and seven seventh chords in major and minor, ever trimming some important characteristics of tonality. Fortunately, music practice does not match their limited tables, but unfortunately, students do not know that and they are being confused. A sure sign of that confusion is their surprise when they encounter or have to use V or VII from natural minor or, say, IV or II7 from harmonic major. As a result, they do not know how to use the first couple of chords, and, as far as the second couple is concerned - they wait until the third semester to be inaugurated in the special magic world of "modal mixture", which gives them a license to use more than seven chords in major...

I think that the best way of getting started is to explain to the students that all the triads from the natural modes (Ionian and Aeolian) are legitimate diatonic structures, and none of them has to be excluded from the music of the CCP and from any tonality-table (which has to stay pretty loose and open, anyway). This basic level of tonality is coded into the key signature of any major or minor key. Next, it would be good to explain that a general collection of triads in minor includes (but is not limited to) the seven diatonic triads from natural minor (with no exception!) and the two dominants from harmonic minor. A typical dominant is one which contains the leading tone, but V and VII from the natural minor are used pretty regularly in the CPP, in the capacity of a connecting chord and a tonicizing chord, respectively.

Similar is the case with major tonality. All the diatonic triads are used with no exception, plus the two harmonic subdominants containing an upper sensitive tone towards the tonic's fifth degree. Thus the Plagal cadence, especially in Romantic music and later, acquires greater tension and drive towards T.

The above review leaves some 9 triads and 9 seventh chords in each mode that circulate with some regularity in tonal compositions. Of course, the melodic versions and additional crhomaticism yeld additional possibilities, but the starting step has been made. 

The picture presented above unfolds as soon as you open Rimksy Korsakov's Practical Manual of Harmony. It is presented in an amazingly concise manner and it suggests that modal mixture is as old as tonality, and that it is nonsensical to say or write "because of the flexibility of degrees 6 and 7 in minor, more chords are possible in minor than in major". In fact, the number of possible triads and seven chords is exactly the same in major and minor, taking into account their three basic versions each. However, by completely ignoring this important vertical aspect of modality, some authors keep calling "diatonic" the harmonic and melodic minor and their inherent chords, probably forgetting that these artificial modes yield some genuine chromatic intervals and chords. How can you classify  an augmented triad as a diatonic chord? How about a minor-major seventh chord? Is the augmented second a diatonic interval? The diminished fourth? All of these elements, and more, are constituents of the harmonic and melodic scales. Therefore, these are genuine chromatic scales with low degree of chromaticism. R. K. calls them "artificial modes".

A most astonishing feature in some pedagogical-literary mish-mash is the lack of clear reference between harmonic and melodic minor and modal mixture. 

Thank you,


Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
School of Music
Texas State University
601 University Drive
San Marcos, Texas 78666

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