TonalityGUIDE - basic tonal music theory and analysis for undergraduates
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Introduction to tonality More about the TonalityGUIDE analysis tool kit Clefs, note labels, intervals and transposition
chord identification understanding voice-leading style awareness

The ToolKIT, which is accessible from all pages of the site, outlines the three main analytical skills that aims to develop. It also links to a short introduction to the study of tonality as well as a reminder of some basics (note and interval labels, clefs and transpositions).

Introduction to Tonality
introduction triadic harmony tonality and tonic
(main theory page)

What is Tonality?
Tonality dominated western music for around four centuries, and tonal music still lies at the core of the mainstream classical and popular concert repertoires. Like any language, tonality is made meaningful through usage, and theory can only limp along behind in its attempt to explain it as a system. Tonal music creates tonality, not the other way round.

A theoretical study of tonality is concerned with how western culture has systematically organised sound in order to make music. Tonality is specifically an organisation of pitch, as opposed to the equally important parameters of rhythm, texture or timbre. In the past, music theorists were keen to demonstrate that this organisation has an internal logic derived from nature. The truth or otherwise of these claims does not affect the fact that pitch in general and tonality in particular has occupied a central place in western musical thought. focuses on what is sometimes called common practice tonality - the characteristic tonal language employed in western music written some time after 1600 and mostly before 1910. Although tonal language changed across this time span and varied enormously within each period, the same basic principles underlie the organisation of pitch in most of the music of this era. explores these principles and the different styles of music that they underpin.

Tonal Space
Almost all musical cultures divide up the spectrum of audible pitch into discrete notes or tones. Tonal music relies on the division of this spectrum into octaves each of which is divided into the twelve semitones of the chromatic scale. Today we tend to take the twelve exactly equal semitones (equal temperament) of the modern keyboard for granted, but it is a compromise that did not achieve complete acceptance until the mid nineteenth century. Despite this, and the fact that non-keyboard musicians rarely play in exactly equal temperament, the music explored on this site can readily be explained in these terms.

What really defines tonality is is the way in which these twelve semitones are related to each other in tonal pieces. These relationships are hierarchical, which basically means that some notes are made more important than others. A simple tonal hierarchy is at work in the humble scale. A melody written using the scale of C major, for example, makes seven of the possibe twelve semitones more important than the remaining five.

At this basic level, we can see two types of organisation of tonal space at work: first the division of the octave into 12 equally spaced notes and second, the decision to make some of these more important than others:

A melody written using the diatonic notes of a C major scale is commonly said to be 'in C major'. There is, however, far more to being 'in' a key than a simple hierarchy in which the notes that are part of the diatonic scale are more important than those which are not. A piece of tonal music sets up hierarchical relationships within the scale itself. It is these relationships that create two important pillars of the tonal system: triadic harmony and the idea of a tonic. These are explored in the rest of this introduction - for more on the major scale look at the diatonic scales section of the reference guide.

introduction triadic harmony tonality and tonic
(main theory page)

The Tonality GUIDE tonal music analysis tool kit
information and orientation as you browse around
chord identification
understanding voice-leading
style awareness

© Copyright Thomas Pankhurst

TonalityGUIDE - Tonal Harmony and Voiceleading - Table of Contents