Earfirst™ Method - introduction   rev 5

      Domino-tonic relation
      Slantnote: reading
      Slantnote: writing
      Binary solfege and interval names
      On to notated world music

This method is Kodaly-inspired, because I was, but it is not a Kodaly method. Delaying scales, triads, and seven-name solfege, we begin with more immediately practical fundamentals.

A note doesn't mean anything. Our ear doesn't understand a note. It seeks musical sense only in intervals between notes, and interval patterns.

Musicians learn music in three ways: aurally, from chord tablature, and from time-specific notation. Many musicians successfully rely on just one or two of these ways.

Earfirst™ method focuses on a combination of aural memory and modern staff notation, aiming to serve singers primarily, and instrumentalists in early training. Latecomers to singing after years of instrument experience are offered a first breakthrough into a dauntingly different skill.

Overview and rationale

Small steps, early rewards

Horse trainer John Lyons teaches that smaller steps make for better teaching. This is a particular set and sequence of elements that build musical sense in small increments, each with a noticeable reward in understanding or skill.


Although rhythm is the only essential of music, Earfirst™ method does not specify a particular rhythm component. For those who already dance, and communicate well with gesture, I do urge small ensemble work (five people max) as the best rhythm school for music makers, if parents and teachers decide for it.

Dalcroze Eurythmics and William Westney's program (presented in his The Perfect Wrong Note) are both superb programs for rhythm and musicianship. I urge adult students, and parents and grandparents of a child with music interests, to read Westney for an understanding of practising and other crucial musicianship aspects. His rhythm program may be the more available for a program for busy post-schooling adults.

The nuts and bolts

Sequence: domino-tonic awareness first

Putting off letternames, keys and scales in favor of an intervals-and-landmarks approach, we begin with the domino-tonic relation, requiring mastery before proceeding.

Discussing major-minor is premature without explicit domino-tonic awareness.

Key, Shmee! Pre-Harmony  exercises DT awareness by means of familiar tunes, in text only, with a two-symbol visual markup above.

Major-minor pad

After the DT groundwork is mastered, we address major-minor, referred to the tonic and referred to the dominant. These are the two places where major-minor is obviously practically important.

For objectifying learners, to whom "notes" are still more real than "intervals", we name both of these major-minor decisive notes. It's the  pad  above the tonic or the  pad  above the dominant.

No need to generalize major-minor to all non-perfect intervals yet—generalizing too soon asks for a poorly motivated discrimination and is therefore mystifying. Much more important is to hear the two landmarks and recognize their pads.

After the squiggle is well in hand, the major-minor concept will be known as quality, applied to intervals, triads and scales rather than particular notes.

Triad theory? Later on. Kodaly begins his seminal Let us sing correctly with the open fifth and major triads.

Nevertheless, in recognizing tonic and dominant we can hear and name and build around the most prominent and stable pattern feature of most of the world's music and through many centuries.

The major-minor quality pads on dominant and tonic are the most obvious difference as people branch out from modern major to pure minor, myxolydian, dorian, phrygian, and the Byzantine modes (in chant or klezmer), and the Hungarian scales.

An edition-in-draft of Key, Shmee! adds markup for the pads.

The Squiggle

The tool for this and for further theory exposition is the squiggle, a divide-and-conquer, visual, key-free alternative to the keyboard. The squiggle is a vertical sine wave, extend to as many periods as will cover the compass of a tune, plus a few more to avoid implying limits.

In each bay on one side of the squiggle a "note" may nestle. Bays on the same side of the River Squiggle are a wholetone apart (two "frets"). Between neighboring note bays on one bank, a bay on the opposite bank is at a one-fret interval (semitone) from each.

Slantnote: reading from the five-line staff, key-free

As the squiggle terminology is being acquired, spearheaded by the major-minor pad exposition, we mount training wheels on the five-line staff: slantnote transcriptions on familiar five-line staves.

The slant of noteheads— two-o'clock  and  ten-o'clock —conforms to cis-trans squiggle sense. When you see notes on neighboring lines, for example, you don't need a key signature to tell the fretwise size of the third. If the slants are opposite (squiggle-trans), it's a minor third.

Slantnote: key-free writing on the five-line staff

With just these tools—DT relation, major-minor on both those landmarks, the squiggle, a little experience reading slantnote—we are now equipped to write music on the five-line staff, from the mind or from dictation.

Notice we don't yet know letter-names for notes, don't necessarily know what a "key" is. That's a step in understanding we don't need at this early stage.

Our key-free DT signature doesn't require a clef sign, sharps or flats. It simply foots a diatonic pattern somewhere on the staff.

What more does a key signature do? It foots the diatonic pattern on the keyboard structure, named with letters.

What do we gain from the DT approach? We are not forced to begin with a perhaps arbitrary decision of what key to write in. More importantly, we can start writing earlier in the game, in a notation familiar to instrument players. And we start reading earlier, without that pesky one-fret ambiguity.

To help an instrument player to read the music we write, we will translate our DT signature into clef sign plus the needed flats or sharps. At first, we do this by consulting the Clock of Dominants or an equivalent table, perhaps before we have The Clock firmly in memory.

Binary solfege and interval names

A two-name solfege echoing the squiggle-and-slantnote model precedes seven-name or four-name diatonic solfege.

Hearing interval size from staff notation is a basic sight-singing tactic, more useful for singers and improv instrumentalists than "perfect pitch". Modeled with the squiggle, interval sizes are made obvious visually with slantnote, verbally with binary solfege.

That is, major thirds and seconds are squiggle-cis (same side of the squiggle); their minor counterparts are trans. Perfect fifths and fourths are squiggle-trans>; the tritone is cis. That's about all there is to squiggle theory.

On to written world music

Acquiring squiggle theory as a part of early earwork greatly helps in further theory study. When the .._BC_D_EF_.. names become important, their pattern of two-fret and one-fret intervals is not only clear but the practical motivation is already apparent.

Copyright ©2014 Danger Dave Zethmayr