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Minor changes to the syllabus


We have introduced the natural minor as a requirement for all Bowed Strings at Grade 1 and as an extra option (in addition to the harmonic and melodic forms) for all instruments at Grades 1 and 2, where applicable. Here, Nigel Scaife, ABRSM’s former Syllabus Director, shares his thoughts on why the easiest minor scale is so useful in teaching.

For some time now we’ve been debating the role of the natural minor scale in teaching and learning, something that was sparked by the idea of introducing this scale for string players at Grade 1. The reasoning is that through having the easiest minor within the scales at the earliest grades, a student’s understanding of the minor mode, very much linked to its relative major, can begin to be encouraged both aurally and theoretically.

Until now, the strings weren’t introduced to the minor modality until Grade 2, because the technical challenges of melodic or harmonic scales are too great until this stage, especially with the finger stretches they demand. However, there are usually a few minor key pieces in the repertoire from the very beginning, as the finger patterns can be limited to conform to the technical level. So while non-string players get to grips with major and relative minor scales on the first rung of the graded ladder, string players are currently left behind. It does seem to make sense to have a minor scale when there are always pieces in the Grade 1 Violin Exam Pieces book in a minor key. It then seemed a logical next step to introduce the natural minor as an additional option for all instruments at Grades 1 and 2, where applicable.

Grove’s definition

For many the whole idea of ‘natural minor’ will be completely new, because these words have not been used in ABRSM theory materials (although interestingly, they do appear in the materials offered by LCM and Trinity Guildhall). So to be clear, let me quote the ultimate authority in all things musical - the famous Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians:

‘There are three ways of conceiving the minor scale in tonal theory. The natural minor (ex.1) consists simply of the ascending or descending sequence of tones and semitones given under the scale from A to A in Table 1. 

Example 1

The melodic minor (ex. 2) has raised sixth and seventh degrees ascending, but is the same as the natural minor descending. This scale can be abstracted from the characteristic movement of minor key melodies where the raised seventh acts as a leading note in the ascending direction (the sixth is raised to avoid an augmented interval between the sixth and seventh degrees). 

Example 2

The harmonic minor scale has a raised seventh in both directions, but the sixth is left unaltered.  In this way it becomes the product of the three primary harmonic functions, being generated from the triads of the tonic, subdominant, and dominant (with raised third), as illustrated in ex. 3.’

Example 3

Similarly, if you type ‘minor scale’ into Wikipedia (the world’s most popular online dictionary) the first scale to be covered is the natural minor, and this is also the case with the vast majority of other music theory resources, both online and in print. To a piano teacher in the USA, it would be almost unthinkable to introduce the minor modality without starting with the natural minor. Virtually all American tutor books use the natural minor as the starting point for introducing the concept of major and relative minor. So perhaps this omission in ABRSM materials, dating back to the days of William Cole’s little white books of Questions and Exercises on Theory of Music, needs to be revisited. Perhaps Cole considered this first minor to be something too easy and pre-Grade 1 to be worth including?

The sound of natural minor

If you are playing music that is not ‘functionally’ tonal, then the natural minor is likely to be very relevant. Certainly in popular music, folk and jazz this is the case.  

Well-known tunes that use the natural minor in popular genres are Moondance (Van Morrison), Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana), House of the Rising Sun (Trad./The Animals), Bamboleo (Gypsy Kings) and The Sound of Silence (Simon and Garfunkel). On the folk side there is When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, All the Pretty Little Horses, Farewell to Nova Scotia and Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier. But the natural minor is also used in a great deal of music within our classical tradition, such as the carol God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen or Tchaikovsky’s Old French Song:

Old French Song

Old French Song

To many, the natural minor will not be a sound that is particularly familiar.  So to illustrate its particular characteristics, here are two more tunes from different musical genres that use it. The first is Hatikvah - Israel’s national anthem. The title means ‘The Hope’ and the tune is ascribed to Samuel Cohen, who based it on a theme in Smetana’s ‘Moldau’, that is itself partly based on a Scandinavian folksong.  This tune appears in countless tutor books, and is a firm favourite among Music Medals candidates:



The second is the folksong Poor Wayfaring Stranger - a song about the journey through life that was made famous by Jack White on the soundtrack to the movie Cold Mountain:

Poor Wayfaring Stranger

Poor Wayfaring Stranger

Teaching major and minor

The natural minor is the form of the minor scale that illustrates directly how a minor scale is related to its relative major: that is how different modes can be derived from one diatonic system by taking the same key signature and starting on different degrees.

This is very easily demonstrated on the piano, where you can physically see the tones and semitones in a way that you can't, of course, on a wind or string instrument. In fact for pianists this is particularly straightforward, as the natural minors starting on A, E and D all have the same fingering as C major.

Because it is often omitted from teaching, many students fail to properly grasp this basic relationship between the 'parent' major and the 'relative' minor. Instead, they are forced prematurely into an understanding of the harmonic and melodic minors, and spend the rest of their lives never really understanding why some of the minor's sharps or flats are placed in the key signature and others as accidentals. The question of why the G# in A minor is not indicated in the key signature is often not addressed with any conviction.

I would argue that by starting with the natural minor, students can best begin to hear and appreciate how scalic patterns really work, rather than simply learning the harmonic and melodic minor scales kinesthetically by rote as exercises, without fully appreciating their individual character or understanding the way they function theoretically and musically.

Once the fundamental idea of changing the major key by playing the same notes but focused around a different primary note as tonic has been grasped, it is a small step to take this forward into starting on the second note to make the Dorian mode, and so forth - when and if that is appropriate for the student. So understanding the natural minor scale in the early stages of learning provides the dual function of clarifying the logic of key relationships for classically-focused students, and laying the foundation for modal thinking for those students who wish to go in that direction.


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