Skip to main content
Library homepage
 
Humanities LibreTexts

2.9: The Tonic

  • Page ID
    56146
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    The tonic is the pitch that, when reached with clarity and emphasis, represents maximum stability, order and repose in a piece of tonal music. It is often described as "home-base," likened to the Sun in our solar system, the King in chess or a play's protagonist and represents the music’s ultimate goal. As far as a key goes, you subscribe to the tonic's "tweets"; all the rest of the pitches are paparazzi.

    Virtually all Western classical works end on the tonic.

    The tonic is an important feature of world of many traditions. In Indian classical music, it is established as a drone that anchors the composition. In this excerpt from a raga performance by Ravi Shankar, the drone is the tonic chord.

    In indigenous melodies, it is a frequent resting point or goal of motion.

    Western classical music uses harmonic progressions to support the tonic. A tonic cadence is the strongest harmonic affirmation of the tonic. This short excerpt from Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 includes repeated tonic cadences. After listening to the example, can you sing the tonic pitch?

    The early twentieth composer Claude Debussy experimented with novel ways to affirm the tonic. The ending of his piano piece Ondine goes beyond Common Practice tradition; nevertheless, the tonic resolution is decisive.

    The music of twentieth-century composer Bela Bartok offers further examples of establishing a tonic by non-traditional means: In this excerpt from the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, the tonic is the focal point of two symmetric lines that converge on it.

    Music that does not have a tonic is called non-tonal or atonal. In such works, no pitch represents maximum order, rest and stability: It's as if you're following a large community of blogs and tweets. Milton Babbitt’s atonality is created from a dense polyphonic web.

    In his Requiem, Gyorgy Ligeti’s atonality is created by squeezing the voices into a tight cluster where individual pitches are no longer easily discriminated.

    Scientists are working to understand why the tonic is so widespread in musical cultures: It may be related to the human need to establish a viewpoint or frame of reference against which to evaluate relationships; it also appears to make music easier to remember and sing. Chord progressions have evolved through different eras and vary between musical genres; but as long as there is one pitch that represents the central focal point, the music can be described as tonal.


    This page titled 2.9: The Tonic is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anthony Brandt & Robert McClure (OpenStax CNX) .

    • Was this article helpful?