• Tonal Organization: Notes, Scales, Intervals, Chords, Chord Progressions, Songs

    in Beginners,General Music,Piano,Theory

    There’s something exciting I want to share with you in today’s lesson, and it’s called tonal organization.

    Tonal music is a form of music that is based on the concept of key and has various levels of organization:

    • Notes
    • Scales
    • Intervals
    • Chords
    • Chord progressions
    • Songs

    The primary goal of this post is to expose you to the relationship between musical elements like notes, scales, and so on. It also aims at giving you a thorough exposition to these various levels of tonal organization from the first to the sixth dimension.

    But before we get into our goal for the day, permit me to give you my definition of music.

    Another Definition Of Music

    Believe it or not, music is beyond definition. Although so many scholars have tried their possible best to define music, none of the definitions have totally grasped music for what it is.

    In high school where I offered music as a subject, here’s the regular definition of music we were taught:

    Music is an organized sound that pleases the ear.

    Although this definition is acceptable, I’ll still want to share with you my own definition of music, which does not also define music absolutely.

    Check it out:

    Music is the art, science, religion, and philosophy of tonal organization.

    I came up with this definition in 2014 and in a subsequent post I’m looking forward to giving you a thorough break down of this definition.

    But before then, let’s go ahead and emphasize on the last two words in that definition – tonal organization.

    The Six Levels Of Tonal Organization

    Tonal organization has to do with the arrangement of notes in a systematic way for the purpose of tonality and there are six dimensions to it.

    Level 1: Notes

    A note is a musical sound of a definite pitch.

    Although there are several notes on the piano:

    …they can classified into these twelve notes:

    In this set of twelve notes:

    …seven are natural (white in color):

    …and five are accidental (black in color):

    “Here Are The Names Of The Natural Notes…”








    “…And The Names Of The Accidental Notes Too…”


    …or Db:


    …or Eb:


    …or Gb:


    …or Ab:


    …or Bb:

    Notes are in the least level of tonal organization and are to music what atoms are in chemistry, alphabets are in linguistics, and cells are in biology.

    Level 2: Scales

    A scale is a regular succession of notes in ascending or descending order [based on a fixed intervallic formula].

    The systematic arrangement of notes in a systematic way produces scales and that’s the second level of organization.

    In the concept of tonality, there are long-established scales that have been associated with the major and minor key and they are as follows:

    • The natural major scale
    • The natural minor scale

    However, the natural minor scale has two chromatic variants:

    • The harmonic minor scale
    • The melodic minor scale

    These scales are basically an outline of all the eight components in the major and minor key. From the C natural major scale:

    …one can see all the components in the key of C major:

    C is the tonic

    D is the supertonic

    E is the mediant

    F is the subdominant

    G is the dominant

    A is the submediant

    B is the subtonic

    C is the octave

    The scale level of tonal organization is higher than the note level for a variety of reasons, one of them being that scales (unlike notes) can be qualified with adjectives like major, minor, diminished and augmented.

    Level 3: Interval

    An interval is a product of the relationship between two notes that are played [or heard] together [or separately], in terms of the distance between them.

    On the third level of tonal organization are intervals, produced by the relationship between two notes.

    Attention: It is not possible for an interval to have more or less than two notes This means that the keyword here is two.

    Intervals are musically ahead of scales in tonal organization because they can be qualified and quantified, unlike scales that can ONLY be qualified.

    Intervals can be qualified using adjectives like perfect, major, minor, diminished and augmented, which describes their inherent tonal properties.

    Perfect intervals are formed by the relationship between the first tone and any of the following tones:

    • The first
    • The fourth
    • The fifth
    • The eighth

    Major intervals are formed by the relationship between the first tone and any of the following tones:

    • The second
    • The third
    • The sixth
    • The seventh

    Minor intervals are formed when major intervals are shrinked by a half step.

    Diminished intervals are formed when perfect and minor intervals are lowered by a half step.

    Augmented intervals are formed when perfect and major intervals are raised by a half step.

    • The third
    • The sixth
    • The seventh

    Intervals can also be quantified using scale knowledge.

    The interval between…

    …the first tone and the first tone is quantified as a first interval, unison, or prime.

    …the first tone and the second tone is quantified as a second interval.

    …the first tone and the third tone is quantified as a third interval.

    …and so on.

    In a nutshell, given an interval like C-D:

    …it can be qualified as a major interval because it is a product of the relationship between the first and second tones of the C natural major scale:

    It can be quantified as a second interval and this is because it is between the first and second tones of the C natural major scale.

    The interval C-D:

    …is a major second interval.

    The term major qualifies it while the term second quantifies it.

    Level 4: Chords

    A chord is a collection of three or more related notes (agreeable or not), played or heard together.

    The term chord is derived from the old English word accord, which means together.

    In a previous lesson, we learned that the relationship between notes that are heard together produces harmony. Due to the fact that a chord is a collection notes played or heard together, chords are said to be harmonic.

    Chords are on the fourth level of tonal organization and the relationship between the notes of a chord is scale and interval based.

    • Scale relationship (on second level of tonal organization)
    • Intervallic relationship (on third level of tonal organization)

    The notes of the C major triad (C, E, and G):

    …are the first, third and fifth tones of the C natural major scale:

    …and that’s scale relationship.

    The intervallic relationship between the notes of the C major triad is in third intervals. From C to E:

    …is a third, and so is E to G:

    It is also important to note that there are three ways to classify chords according to width:

    • Triads
    • Seventh Chords
    • Extended Chords

    A triad is a chord of three notes, a seventh chord is a chord of four notes, that encompasses seven degrees of the scale when played in root position. Extended chords are chords that consist of compound intervals like ninths, elevenths, thirteenth, and so on.

    Level 5: Chord Progression

    Level 6: Songs

    Final Words

    Jermaine Griggs wasn’t wrong when he said that “notes form scales, scales form intervals, intervals form chords, chords form chord progressions, while chord progressions from songs.”

    Consequently, it’s important for every serious musician to be aware of these six levels of tonal organization:

    • Notes
    • Scales
    • Intervals
    • Chords
    • Chord progressions
    • Songs

    Thanks for investing time in reading this blog. I’ll see you in the next lesson.

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    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.

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