• Ask Dr. Pokey: “What Is Tonal Music?”

    in Beginners,Experienced players,Piano,Theory

    Post image for Ask Dr. Pokey: “What Is Tonal Music?”

    If you’re interested in learning about tonal music, then you are on the right page.

    We have quite a lot to cover in this blog and we’ll be getting started right away with a review on the concept of key. So, give me your undivided attention for the next 10 minutes or so.

    A Quick Review On The Concept Of Key

    A key [in music] can be likened to an environment created or established by eight tones.

    In every key, there’s a tonic — which is the most important tone in the key. The tonic is so important that the key derives its letter name from the tonic.

    Eight white notes on the keyboard from C to C:

    …can establish a key.

    The key below:

    …has C as its tonic:

    …and that’s why it’s described as the key of C.

    Here are the eight components of a key and their technical names:

    The first tone is the tonic

    The second tone is the supertonic

    The third tone is the mediant

    The fourth tone is the subdominant

    The fifth tone is the dominant

    The sixth tone is the submediant

    The seventh tone is the subtonic

    The eighth tone is the octave

    A Short Note On The Major And Minor Key

    The establishment of a key creates either of these two environments:

    1. An environment that sounds bright, happy, etc
    2. An environment that sounds dark, sad, etc.

    The former [1] is described as the major key while the latter [2] is known as the minor key.

    Playing all the white notes on the keyboard from C to C:

    …produces C major scale (which is the traditional scale of the key of C major), while playing all the white notes from A to A:

    …produces the A natural minor scale (which is the traditional scale in the key of A minor).

    Although the following keys are different:

    The key of C major:

    The key of A minor:

    They are related because they have identical components.

    The key of C major starts and ends on C while the key of A minor starts and ends on A. Both keys (C major and A minor) are known as relative keys and this is because of the relationship between them.

    “Parallel Major And Minor Keys…”

    Major and minor keys that have the same letter name are known as parallel minor keys. The key of C major and C minor are parallel keys.

    Check them out:

    The key of C major:

    The key of C minor:

    The difference between the major key and the minor key can be seen a major key and its parallel minor key are considered side-by-side.

    Tonal Music — Defined

    Any piece of music that is related to a particular key is classified as tonal music.

    Tonal music started in the 17th century and its theory, melody, harmony, composition and orchestration techniques, etc., has governed music for the past 400 years or so.

    Let’s look at the various levels of tonal organization in tonal music.

    Six Levels Of Tonal Organization

    There are six levels of tonal organization:

    Level 1 — Notes. Notes are on the first level of tonal organization.

    Level 2 — Scales. Scales are on the second level of tonal organization.

    Level 3 — Intervals. Intervals are on the third level of tonal organization.

    Level 4 — Chords. Chords are on the fourth level of tonal organization.

    Level 5 — Chord Progressions. Chord progressions are on the fifth level of tonal organization.

    Level 6 — Songs. Songs are on the sixth level of tonal organization.

    “Pay Attention To This…”

    Tonal music begins with the establishment of a note [level 1] as a key, and the outline of the notes in the key produces the traditional scale [level 2] of that key (be it a major or minor key).

    Using the knowledge of scale tones in the key, intervals [level 3] can be formed when two notes are played or heard. Intervals (which are the building block of chords) can be used to form chords [level 4].

    The movement from one chord to another produces chord progressions [level 5] and songs [level 6] can be broken down into chord progressions.

    Check it out:

    Notes > Scales > Intervals > Chords > Chord Progressions > Songs

    “Never forget this…”

    As long as a piece of music is written in a particular key, it is tonal music.

    Jazz, country, disco, reggae, salsa, bossa-nova, funk, gospel, rock, and other American popular music styles are all categorized as tonal music and this is because they are played on a particular key

    The 12 Major And 12 Minor Keys

    There are 12 notes on the keyboard:

    The use of alternated spellings like C#/Db, D#/Eb. etc., increases the number of possible spellings of these notes. However, this does not in any way change the fact that there are 12 notes.

    “Check This Out…”

    B# and C are equal:



    …and are considered to be tonal counterparts in tonal music.

    F# and Gb are equal:



    …and are considered to be tonal counterparts in tonal music.

    When all tonal counterparts are categorized according to the pitch class they belong to, we’ll be left with 12 unique notes.

    “2 Key Types x 12 Notes = 24 Keys”

    There are 2 key types and 12 unique notes and if you do the math, there are 24 keys in tonal music: 12 major keys and 12 minor keys.

    “Here Are The Major Keys…”

    The key of C major:

    The key of Db major:

    The key of D major:

    The key of Eb major:

    The key of E major:

    The key of F major:

    The key of Gb major:

    The key of G major:

    The key of Ab major:

    The key of A major:

    The key of Bb major:

    The key of B major:

    “Check Out The Minor Keys…”

    The key of C minor:

    The key of C# minor:

    The key of D minor:

    The key of Eb minor:

    The key of E minor:

    The key of F minor:

    The key of F# minor:

    The key of G minor:

    The key of G# minor:

    The key of A minor:

    The key of Bb minor:

    The key of B minor:

    Final Words

    Tonal music is connected to science, history, art, religion, etc., and in subsequent lessons we’ll be looking at the scientific aspect of tonal music where we’ll have a deeper insight on the equivalence of tones, temperament, tuning, etc.

    See you then!

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

    Comments on this entry are closed.

    Previous post:

    Next post: