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Tonality is the character of music written with hierarchical relationships of pitcheses, rhythms, and chordss to a "center" or tonic. Tonic is sometimes used interchangeably with key. The term tonalité was likely first introduced by Joseph Fétis in 1840 (Reti, 1958 and Judd, 1998). In his influential article on the subject, music theorist Carl Dalhaus provided a broad survey which included seven definitions of tonality he felt had been used with regularity.

Tonality, then, may be defined in various ways:

However, tonality may be considered generally with no restrictions as to the date or place at which the music was produced, or (very little) restriction as to the materials and methods used. This definition includes much non-western music and western music before 17th century. In fact, many people, including Anton Webern, consider all music to be tonal in that music is always perceived as having a center. Centric is sometimes used to describe music which is not traditionally tonal in that it used triads of a diatonic scale but which nevertheless has relatively strong tonal center. Other terms which have been used in an attempt clarify are tonical and tonicality, as in "possessing a tonic," and Igor Stravinsky used the term polar.

A distinction is commonly made between functional tonality, or sometimes narrative tonality, and other (nonfunctional) tonality such as the pandiatonicism of Aaron Copland or Steve Reich which often consists of tonal or tonal added tone chords (trouves or "finds" as Aaron Copland described some of his own nonfunctional tonality) in nontonal successions.

David Cope (1997) considers key, consonance or relaxation and dissonance or tension, and hierarchical relationships to be the three most basic concepts in tonality.

Table of contents
1 Vocabulary of Tonal Organization
2 Theory of Tonal Music
3 History
4 External links
5 Sources

Vocabulary of Tonal Organization

Many of the terms and symbols necessary to analyze tonal organization follow below.

In the vast majority of tonal music pitches generally conform to one of four specific seven note scales: major, natural minor, melodic minor, and harmonic minor. The major scale predominates and melodic minor contains nine pitches (seven with two alterable). The basic seven notes of a scale are notated in the key signature, and whether the piece is in the major or minor is either stated in the title, or implied in the piece. While other scales and modes are used in tonal music, particularly after 1890, these two are the scales which are considered the most normal. In notation, each note or degree of the scale is often designated by a Roman numeral, or less commonly solfege:

Function Roman Numeral Solfege
Tonic I Do
Supertonic II Re
Mediant III Mi/Mé
Sub-Dominant IV Fa
Dominant V So
Sub-Mediant VI La/Le
Leading/Subtonic VII Ti/Te

Thus "I" describes the tonic chord at a given time.

Chords, all triadss, are also built upon, in a tertian manner, and named by the scale degree which acts as their root. Chords are then further named according to their quality or makeup, determined by the scale notes which lie a third and fifth (two thirds) above the degree a chord is built upon. If minor the numeral is lower case, if major, uppercase, and other chords are designated in other ways. Quality is generally not as important as the chord's root.

The degree of a scale is both the pitch of that note and that pitches diatonic function, which is why chords are named by scale degree. Thus the notes of a chord do not have to be sounded simultaneously, and one to two notes may function as a three or more note chord. Thus a chord described as "V" is based on the fifth note of the prevailing tonic scale. In C Major, that would be a triad based on G, and would be the G Major triad.

To describe a chord progression, the roman numerals of the chords are listed. Thus IV-V-I describes a chord progression of a chord based on the fourth note of a scale, then one based on the fifth note of the scale, and then one on the first note of the scale. Capital Roman numerals refer to the major chord, and lower case roman numerals refer to the minor chord. This means that in the traditional major scale, the ii, iii and vi are minor chords, where as I, IV, V are major. The chord on the seventh note is a diminished triad and is written vii. Numbers attached to a chord indicate additional notes, one of the most important chords in tonal harmony is the V7 chord which is a four note chord that includes the fourth note of the tonic scale. The "7" refers to a note seven diatonic steps up from the fundamental note of the chord, not the seventh note of the tonic scale.

The traditional form of tonal music begins and ends on the tonic of the piece, and many tonal works move to a closely related key, such as the dominant of the main tonality. Establishing a tonality is traditionally accomplished through a cadence which is two chords in succession - the most common being V7-I cadence. Other cadences are considered to be less powerful. The cadences determines the form of a tonal piece of music, and the placement of cadences, there preparation and establishment as cadences, as opposed to simply chord progressions, is central to the theory and practice of tonal music.

Most tonality is "functional harmony", which is a term used to describe music where changes in the predominate scale or additional notes to chords are explainable by their place in stabilizing or destabilizing a tonality. This is a complex way of saying that it is possible to explain why a particular note was included, and what that note means in relation to the tonic chord. Harmony with a large number of notes which do not have clear structural function is called "nonfunctional" harmony, which is not to imply "disfunctional", but merely that the additional notes are not to be played or heard as restricting or advancing the harmonic progression.

In the context of tonal organization a chord or a note is said to be "consonant" when it implies stability, and "dissonant" when it implies instability. This is not the same as the ordinary use of the words consonant and dissonant. A dissonant chord is in tension against the tonic, and implies that the music is distant from that tonic chord. "Resolution" is the process by which the harmonic progression moves from dissonant chords to consonant chords and follows counterpoint or voice leading. Voice leading is a description of the "horizontal" movement of the music, as opposed to chords which are considered the "vertical".

In the common forms of tonal organization, since a chord has a relationship to the tonic, which note is its fundamental note is set, not by which note is played lower than the others, but by which note establishes the chord's relationship to the tonic. This means that chords are said to be "inverted" when this fundamental note is not sounded the lowest. For example in C Major C-E-G is the tonic chord. If C is not the lowest note played, it is said to be in "inversion". The first inversion would be E-G-C, and the second inversion would be G-C-E.

To summarize, traditional tonal music is described in terms of a scale of notes. On that scale are built chords. Chords in order form a progression. Progressions establish or deny a particular chord as being the tonic chord. The cadence is held to be the sequence of chords which establishes one chord as being the tonic chord, more powerful cadences create a greater sense of closure and a stronger sense of key. Chords have a function when it can be explained how they lead the music towards or away from a particular tonic chord. When the sense of which tonic chord is changed, the music is said to have "changed key" or "modulated". The vocabulary of roman numerals and numbers is used to describe the relationship of a particular chord to the tonic chord.

The techniques of accomplishing this process, are the subject of tonal music theory and compositional practice.

Theory of Tonal Music

Tonality allows for a great range of musical materials, structures, meanings, and understandings. It does this through establishing a tonic, or central chord based on a pitch which is the lowest degree of a scale, and a somewhat flexible network of relations between any pitch or chord and the tonic similar to perspective in painting. This is what is meant by tonality having a hierarchical relationship, one triad, the tonic triad, is the "center of gravity" to which other chords are supposed to lead. Changing which chord is felt to be the tonic triad is referred to as "modulation". As within a musical phrase, interest and tension may be created through the move from consonance to dissonance and back, an larger piece will also create interest by moving away from and back to the tonic and tension by destabilizing and re-establishing the key. Distantly related pitches and chords may be considered dissonant in and of themselves since their resolution to the tonic is implied. Further, temporary secondary tonal centers may be established by cadences or simply passed through in a process called modulation, or simultaneous tonal centers may be established through polytonality. Additionally, the structure of these features and processes may be linear, cycical, or both. This allows for a huge variety of relations to be expressed through dissonance and consonance, distance or proximaty to the tonic, the establishment of temporary or secondary tonal centers, and/or ambiguity as to tonal center. Music notation was created to accommodate tonality and facilitates interpretation.

The the majority of tonal music assumes that notes spaced over several octaves are perceived the same way as if they were played in one octave or octave equivalency. Tonal music also assumes that scales have harmonic implication or diatonic functionality. This is generally held to imply that a note which has different places in a chord will be heard differently, and that therefore there is not enharmonic equivalency. In tonal music chords which are moved to different keys, or played with different root notes are not perceived as being the same, and thus transpositional equivalency and far less still inversional equivalency are not generally held to apply.

A successful tonal piece of music, or a successful performance of one, will give the listener a feeling that a particular chord - the tonic chord - is the most stable and final. It will then use musical materials to tell the musician and the listener how far the music is from that tonal center, most commonly, though not always, to heighten the sense of movement and drama as to how the music will resolve the tonic chord. The means for doing this are described by the rules of harmony and counterpoint, though some influential theorists prefer the term "through-bass" instead of harmony, the concept is the same. Counterpoint is the study of linear resolutions of music, while harmony encompasses the sequences of chords which form a chord progression.

Though modulation may occur instantaneously without indication or preparation, the least ambigous way to establish a new tonal center is through a cadence, a succession of two or more chords which ends a section and/or gives a feeling of closure or finality, or series of cadences. Traditionally cadences act both harmonically to establish tonal centers and formally to articulate the end of sections, just as the tonic triad is harmonically central, a dominant-tonic cadence will be structrually central. The more powerful the cadence, the larger the section of music it can close. The strongest cadence is the perfect authentic cadence, which moves from the dominant to the tonic, most strongly establishes tonal center, and ends the most important sections of tonal pieces, including the final section. This is the basis of the "dominant-tonic" or "tonic-dominant" relationship. Common practice placed a great deal of emphasis on the correct use of cadences to structure music, and cadences were placed precisely to define the sections of a work. However, such strict use of cadences gradually gave way to more complex procedures where whole families of chords were used to imply particular distance from the tonal center. Composers, beginning in the late 18th Century began using chords (such as the Neapolitan, French or Italian Sixth) which temporarily suspended a sense of key, and by freely changing between the major and minor voicing for the tonic chord, thereby making the listener unsure whether the music was major or minor. There was also a gradual increase in the use of notes which were not part of the basic 7 notes, called chromaticism, culminating in post-Wagnerian music such as that by Mahler and Strauss and trends such as impressionism and dodecaphony.

One area of disagreement, going back to the origin of the term tonality, is whether, and to what degree, tonality is "natural" or inhernet in music, and whether, and to what degree, it is constructed by the composer, performer and listener. The arguments involved are too complex to summarize, and it is difficult to draw clear lines. There is also a disagreement as to how "natural" the practice of Western tonal harmony is versus other forms of harmony, and what grounds would prove or disprove this hypothesis. Since these arguments are often centered around what kind of music should be performed and taught, they often assume a vehemence or dogmaticism which goes beyond the nominal issue of hearing and perception.


Theories of tonal music are generally dated from Rameau's Treatise on Harmony, where he describes music written through chord progressions, cadences and structure. He claims that his work represents "the practice of the last 40 years", however, this is probably not the case. Rameau's work, initially controversial, was adopted by Marpurg in his explanation of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. The vocabulary of describing notes in relationship to the tonic note, and the use of harmonic progressions and cadences becomes absorbed into the practice of Bach. Essential to this version of tonal theory are the chorales harmonizations of Bach, and the method by which a church melody is given a four part harmony by assigning cadences, and then creating a "natural", meaning in this case the most direct, through bass and then filling in the middle voices.

By the 1840's the practice of harmony had expanded to include more chromatic notes, a wider chord vocabulary, particularly the more frequent used of the diminished seventh chord - a four note chord of all minor triads which could lead to any other chord. It is in this era that the word "tonality" becomes more commonly used. At the same time the elaboration of both the fugue and the sonata form in terms of key relationships becomes more rigorous, and the study of harmonic progressions, voice leading and ambiguity of key becomes more precise.

Fetis described what he termed, tonalité moderne and tonalité ancienne, defined by the functional use of the dominant seventh chord and began with Monteverdi, the latter being represented by Palestrina. Theorists such as Edward Lowinsky, Hugo Riemann, and others pushed the date at which modern tonality began. Also, the cadence began to be seen as the definitive way that a tonality is established in a work of music (Judd, 1998)

In response Bernhard Meier instead used a "tonality" and "modality", modern vs ancient, dichotomy, with Renaissance music being modal. The term modality has been critized by Harold Powers, among others. However, it is widely used to describe music whose harmonic function centers on notes rather than on chords, including some of the music of Bartok, Stravinski, Vaugh Williams, Charles Ives and composers of minimalist music. This and other modal music is, broadly, often considered tonal.

In the early 20th century the vocabulary of tonal theory is decisively influenced by two theorists: composer Arnold Scheonberg whose work "Harmonielehre" describes in detail chords, chord progressions, vagrant chords, creation of tonal areas, voice leading in terms of harmony. To Scheonberg, every note has "structural function" to assert or deny a tonality, based on its tendency to establish or undermine a single tonic triad as central. At the same time Heinrich Schenker is evolving a theory based on expansion of horizontal relationships. To Schenker the background of every successful tonal piece is based on a simple cadence, which is then elaborated and elongated in the middle ground and the background. Though adherents of the two theorists argued back and forth, in the mid-century a synthesis of their ideas was widely taught as "tonal theory", most particularly Schenker's use of graphical analysis, and Schoenberg's emphasis on tonal distance.

The practice of jazz developed its own theory of tonality, stating that while the cadence is not central to establishing a tonality - the presence of the I and V chords and either the IV or ii chord is. This theory emphasized the play of modal elements against tonal elements, in an effort to allow improvisation, and inflection of standard melodies. Among theorists influenced by this view are Meier, Schillinger and the be-bop school of Jazz.

Rudolph Réti differentiates between harmonic tonality, of the traditional homophonic kind, and melodic tonality, as in monophonic. He argues that in the progression I-x-V-I (and all progressions), V-I is the only step "which as such produces the effect of tonality," and that all other chord successions diatonic or not, though being closer or farther from the tonic-dominant, are "the composer's free invention." He describes melodic tonality as being "entirely different from the classical type," wherein, "the whole line is to be understood as a musical unit mainly through its relationship to this basic note [the tonic]," this note not always being the tonic that would be interpreted according to harmonic tonality. His examples are ancient Jewish and Gregorian chant and other Eastern music, and he points out how these melodies often may be interrupted at any point and returned to the tonic, yet harmonically tonal melodies, such as that from Mozart's The Magic Flute below, are actually "strict harmonic-rhythmic pattern[s]," and include many points "from which it is impossible, that is, illogical, unless we want to destroy the innermost sense of the whole line." (Reti, 1958)

x = return to tonic near inevitable
circled x = possible but not inevitable
circle = impossible
(Reti, 1958)

Which may be compared with  in which the melody returns to the tonic after the first circle, and  which returns after the second.

Consequently, he argues, melodically tonal melodies resist harmonization and only reemerge in western music after, "harmonic tonality was abandoned," as in the music of Claude Debussy: "melodic tonality plus modulation is [Debussy's] modern tonality." (page 23)

While many regard the works of Scheonberg post 1911 as "atonal", see atonality one influential school of thought, to which Schoenberg himself belonged, argued that chromatic composition lead to a "new tonality", this view is argued by George Perle in his works on "post diatonic tonality". The central idea of this theory is that music is always perceived as having a center, and even in a fully chromatic work, composers establish and disintegrate centers in a manner analogous to traditional harmony. This view is highly controversial, and remains a topic of intense debate.


In the early 20th century, the definition of tonality which was held to have prevailed since the 1600's was felt to reach a crisis or break down point. The belief was that tonality had "snapped" because of expansion of vocabulary, decreased functionality, increased use of leading tones, alterations, modulations, tonicization, the increased importance of subsidary key areas, use of non-diatonic hierarchical methods, and/or symmetry. This "crisis" lead to a series of responses, many of which were considered irreconcileable with tonal theory or tonality at all. At the same time, other composers and theorists maintained that tonality had been stretched but not broken. This lead to more technical vocabularies to describe tonality, including pitch classes, pitch sets, graphical analysis, and describing works in terms, not of their notes, but of their dominant intervals.

While tonality is the most common form of organizing Western Music, it is not universal, nor is the seven note scale universal, many folk musics and the art music of many cultures focuses on a pentatonic, or five note scale, including Beijing Opera, the folk music of Hungary, and the musical traditions of Japan. Pre-classical concert music was largely modal, as is much folk and some popular music. In the early 20th century many techniques where developed and applied to tonal music, such as non-tertian secundal or quartal music. Some, such as Benjamin Boretz, consider tonal theory a specific part of atonal theory or musical set theory, which is in turn part of a more general theory of music. Many composers such as Darius Milhaud and Philip Glass have been interested in bitonality. While at one point in the middle of the 20th century classical composers interested in the twelve tone technique and serialism declared tonality dead, many composers have since returned to tonality, including many minimalists and older composers such as George Rochberg. Other composers never abandonded tonality entirely such as Lou Harrison who says he has "always composed both modally and chromatically." (Harrison, 1992) Much music today that is described as tonal is nonfunctional tonality such as in Claude Debussy, Steve Reich, Aaron Copland and many others.

External links