Common Practice tonality is essentially a two-party system: Music is either in Major or in minor. Composers can blur the situation by shifting quickly between modes or blending them. But, with rare exceptions, these modes are the only alternatives.
A tonic cadence gives the strongest indication of the music’s mode. Recognizing cadences in in Major and minor will help you distinguish between them.
Also learn to recognize the different scales of which each mode is comprised:
There are other perceptual cues that aid in discriminating between the modes. Major and minor are often characterized differently. There is so much variety that any prescriptions are inevitably simplistic. Nevertheless, compared to music in Major, music in minor tends to be low, slow and constrained in register; or more frantic, tense and disjunct. Here are some prototypical examples of music in each mode:
Music in Major:
Music in minor:
You can use your emotional reactions to reinforce your aural analyses. In general, music in Major will provoke feelings of calm, triumph or joy, whereas music in minor will sound more subdued, aggressive, troubled or turbulent. Major is the mode of well-being; minor is the mode of distress.
Thus, learning to recognize the difference between Major and minor involves more than ear training. It engages mind training and feeling training: Evaluate the musical character and your emotional responses; these, along with analyses of the cadences and scales, will help you master this crucial distinction.
The exercises that follow are designed to increase your facility in distinguishing between music in Major and minor.