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)

The previous sections explain how diatonic scales and triads organise pitch in tonal music. Another hierarchy responsible for the sense of 'being in a key' is the relationships created between the different diatonic triads.

These relationships are based on conventions established by generations of composers, subtly varying and changing across the centuries. As such they cannot be described in terms of logical 'rules' - music theorists can only describe characteristic features of tonal music and suggest how they contribute to the sense of tonality. The relationships between chords (and their functional labels) are explored thoroughly in the main part of the site, this just provides an introductory overview.

The simple melody in the example below is harmonised by each of the seven diatonic triads (they are arranged in what is known as a cycle of fifths ). When people say that a piece is 'in C major', what they mean is the triad of C major (chord I or the tonic) somehow feels more stable and more final than any of the other triads. People have used various metaphors to describe the attraction of the tonic, including magnetism, gravity and stretching a piece of elastic.

Look at and listen to the example. In what sense is this extract 'in C major'?

There is no one answer to this question - it is a combination of the chords the piece uses and the relationships and progressions between them.

Choice of triads

  • all the triads are based on the diatonic scale of C major .
  • vii is the only diminished triad, which makes it an unlikely point of rest because it contains the less stable diminished fifth. In addition the bass progression to vii is a diminished fifth (marked X).
  • in some styles minor chords are considered less stable than major ones.
  • as discussed elsewhere on the site, voice-leading between chords involving a rising semitone to the tonic this is often considered as creating stronger closure. As shown by the brackets marked Y, only the progressions I-IV and V-I contain this voice-leading feature.

Organisation of triads

  • the extract begins and ends on a C major triad.
  • the addition of the passing seventh to the penultimate chord marks the arrival on I at the end.
  • the melody rises and falls starting and beginning on the root of I

The sense that C major is the tonic comes from a combination of the above reasons plus many not mentioned. The rest of this site explores how the hierarchies created by tonal writing are intensified and embellished through the modification of chords, creation of different chord progressions and various other means.

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