“Music is the essence of order and lends to all that is good, just, and beautiful.” – Plato

Have you ever had the chance to compare music in a major key to music in a minor key? Both major and minor keys are made up of those sunny syllables that we learned in The Sound of Music: “do, re, mi.” The major key feels predictable to our ears. It cheerfully skips out to its destination and back home again. But, music in a minor key is a different type of encounter. “Bad guy coming!” as a friend of mine put it. Music in a minor key also goes on a journey, but it strays. There is sometimes a soul-striking pause. You are given a long minute to feel the sadness in the world. Your heart longs for something or someone far away. Then, suddenly, the straying is over, and the music quietly returns home. Its melody stays with you long after the song ends.

In the Ambleside classroom, we aim to give young people a love of music that notices, appreciates, and keenly expresses. Appreciating the nuances of a major or minor key is just one of the beautiful skills we teach to the young. We call this subject “Composer Study.”

“Music is the shorthand of emotion.”

― Leo Tolstoy

Each grade meets two composers a year. We begin with a little about the composer’s life and work. The children delight to know about the styles of music in the world from long ago. They discuss the title of today’s song and learn what “concerto” or “etude” mean. The students practice conducting in waltz time and pore over the sheet music in awe, looking for phrasing or staccato markings. They listen to, describe, and compare a major and minor key. When it is time to listen, their minds and ears are ready.

There is a stillness that comes to their hands and bodies as they give all their attention to the music. Their gaze is far away as they follow the conversation between the orchestra and its soloist. At the last downbeat, every hand shoots into the air.

There is so much to say. The students describe the music as if trying to help a friend, who hasn’t heard this song yet, know what it was like. They work together to tell as much as they can. Then they discuss the form of the concerto, the composer’s use of the minor key, and his dynamic use of volume. They even ponder the feeling of the message he is wordlessly communicating. I have seen nine-year-olds make themselves late for recess with their lively discussion.

“Who hears music, feels his solitude peopled at once.”

― Robert Browning

Sometimes we learn to sing along with the melodies of Beethoven, Vivaldi, Mozart, or Bach. Did you know that children and adults can sing, hum, or whistle along to some of the world’s most complex musical lines? Once a week, first thing in the morning, I put the song on “repeat,” and we listen to nothing else during that day’s break times. When we gather to sing it, all that is needed is sincere effort. Teacher and students try, fail, and try again together. “It’s too fast! So many notes!” It’s a safe experience, with the goal of being able to sing just one minute of the song at a time. After some practice, everyone can sing along with a memorable section of one of the world’s great musical works. It is stored forever in the mind’s concert hall. For years to come, it will come back to cheer the soul like the thought of a dear friend.

Music helps us to be the best version of ourselves. It makes us wonder at God’s gift of divine inspiration to the prepared minds of chosen musicians. It speaks about life, conversation, and emotion. Let us listen deeply to its many lessons.

Some songs you may enjoy listening to:

In a major key:

Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major

Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

Chopin’s The Grande valse brillante in E-flat major

Vivaldi’s “Spring” and “Autumn”

In a minor key:

Bach’s Concerto for 2 Violins, Strings, and Continuo in D Minor, 2nd Movement

Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 13 “Pathetique”

Beethoven’s Sonata Opus 27 “Moonlight”

Vivaldi’s “Summer” and “Winter”