All notes are equal, but some notes are more equal than others.
*wait for the laughter*
Tonality is an understanding of hierarchy of the notes in relation to “one note that rules them all”.
*assuming people will not laugh twice, share a “look” with the nerds who got the joke*
“And then what happened?” is not a question only to be asked when reading/seeing fictional works or listening to your best friend’s love life. As audience we feel the and-then-what-happened feeling all the time during a piece.
Just like there is dark and light, movement and stillness, loud and quiet, there is tension and release. In tonal music, ideas are build on unstable (tense) and stable (released) sounds. Journey in between the two throughout a certain time creates the music.
For the audience to wonder what will happen next, to hold onto the melody, to feel the “resolution” at the end, there needs to be tension points, unstable moments -just like in a novel, play, movie, there needs to be the challenge.
In tonal music, the challenge (will the boy get the girl? what’s behind that door?) is defined as “tension” and resolution (ah nice they got together! oh its just a puppy!) as “release“. In music they are not as concrete as the boy and the girl or as the door and the puppy, but abstractly you feel pretty much the same feelings while experiencing it.
Tonality and its hierarchy defines the notes in various functioning groups based on their amount of tension and stability in relation to that “one note that rules them all”. Each note gains a function in this hierarchy, and needs to act according to it. This need is not something that has been decided just like that.
When you play the exercises below, you will understand better what I mean by it.
Functions of Notes in Tonality
In tonal music theory, the function of a note is understood by its relationship to the tonal center. It is similar to intervals in that way, but don’t be confused, they are quiet different! There can be an intervals between any notes, but the function is always depending on the tonal center.
Function of a note defines if that note is stable (listener is relaxed, and melody does not have a tendency to go anywhere else) or unstable (often makes the listener expect something else to happen sometime soon). Stable functioning notes want to stick around for longer times, while unstable functioning notes want to reach to the stable notes as soon as possible. The delay of the resolution is the key to most richness of many western music.
We name each note with a degree in relation to the tonal center (Re is the tonal center in Re Major). Finger count is valid in this situation; Re being your first finger, La will be your fifth finger, hence La is the “Fifth degree of Re Major”
Tonic: King/Queen/Home/Vanishing point/Ground/Sun/Center of the Galaxy/I can go on
Like the vanishing point in perspective, in tonal music there is a point where every note would prefer to go. The note on that point is called the Tonic (Tonal Center). In a Do Major piece, Do is the Tonic, in a La Minor piece, La is the Tonic. All roads lead to Rome, all notes want to go to Tonic. What happens if Tonic wants to go to Tonic? Nothing! So it is a “Stable” note. In fact the tonic is the most stable note. It is the note to start, to release after a tension, to relax, to sit on.
For the Tonic note to have such gravity, you need to spend some time around it in the beginning for the audience to get it as a base. In music, most of the time, the beginning of the piece gives you such a feeling that you learn really well what is home. In short pieces for learning players, in children songs, the first note of the melody is %99 the tonic note, just like the very last note of the piece.
In a slightly larger analysis, yet again in shot pieces and in children songs, the first phrase begins and ends with the tonic note. But since not much time has passed while listening to the piece, the audience doesn’t get the “oh the tonic, then the piece has ended” feeling. For the “oh we are home now!” emotion to surround you, you need to walk out of the house, and then come back.
You can play other notes that will give the flavor of the tonic in a less obvious way. Depending on the usage, the III and VI can be used with a tonic function. These notes are used during pieces to give a bit of release to the audience, without giving them the feeling that the piece has ended. When you rest on these notes during your improvisation, you also get a moment to clear your head before diving into some “away from home” explorations again.
Dominant: The question/The build-up/The tension/The lingering feeling/The “and then what happened??” moment
Dominant note is the one that needs the most to go to the Tonic note. It creates an instability that the ears are prepared to hear a resolution right after. Although we are focusing on tonal harmony of Western music, the relation of dominant-tonic (tension-resolution) can be found in Eastern folk as well.
When a piece starts and introduces you the tonal center (home), the second thing to do is to get you out from there so that you can get pulled back in. This is done with introducing melodies that has the dominant function in it. When you hear them, and not hear the tonic right after them, you get a feeling like “yeah? and then? and then?” It is the 5th note of the tonal scale.
Speaking can tell only this much. Play the piece you know so well below:
Its name couldn’t be more clear. Its the seventh degree (do finger count if necessary) of the key. It leads you to the next one. Which is The tonic. It desires to go there.
Wanna know how? Play the Re Major scale, and stop at the Do#. First of all, you might not be able to stop there, if you are used to playing the scale, you will unintentionally finish the scale at the top Re. The leading tone has such a gravitational pull towards the tonic that it is almost impossible to “finish” at it.
When you play the whole scale, you are using the entire palette a key (in this case Re Major) can provide. So the Do# is getting its function loud and clear. You can do this to realize the function of each note. Play the whole scale and then go to one of the notes.
Do You Want More?
Soon there will be more on music theory! Write to me if you want to get the update asap!
E-School of Violin Homepage
Home to exciting learning materials and song transcriptions for all levels of players.
Contact for practice material, receiving Skype lessons, send video to receive feedback