• What If I Told You There’s A Difference Between The Leading Note And The Subtonic?

    in Beginners,Experienced players,Piano,Theory

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    The leading note and the subtonic are two technical names that can be used interchangeably.

    Submission: The term leading note can also be called the leading tone. I just prefer calling it the leading note.

    In the key of C major:

    B:

    …is the leading note and the subtonic as well.

    However, there are cases where the use of the term leading note to describe the subtonic would we considered not only as inappropriate, but theoretically wrong.

    After this lesson, you’ll know the difference between the leading note and the subtonic and most importantly, when use them in relationship with the seventh tone of the scale.

    Let’s get started with a short study on technical names.

    A Short Note On The Technical Names Of Scale Tones

    There are seven scale tones in the major key and although they can be described using numbers (I suppose that you’re familiar with the number system), there are technical names for each of these scale tones.

    Let’s use the key of C major (as a reference):

    The first tone (which is C):

    …is known as the tonic.

    The second tone (which is D):

    …is known as the supertonic.

    The third tone (which is E):

    …is known as the mediant.

    The fourth tone (which is F):

    …is known as the subdominant.

    The fifth tone (which is G):

    …is known as the dominant.

    The sixth tone (which is A):

    …is known as the submediant.

    The seventh tone (which is B):

    …is known as the subtonic.

    The seventh tone of the scale is technically known as the subtonic.

    Now, that’s the universal term that describes the seventh tone of the scale ALL THE TIME and this means that you can NEVER go wrong calling the seventh tone of the scale the subtonic.

    Alright, let’s proceed to thee leading note concept.

    The Concept Of The Leading Note

    The term leading note is also associated with the seventh tone of the scale (aka – “the subtonic”.)

    So, there’s no better way to understand the concept of the leading note than to take a look at the subtonic in the major and minor key respectively.

    The Subtonic In The Major And Minor Key

    The key of C major:

    …and the key of C minor:

    …have their subtonic tones respectively.

    The subtonic in the major key (which is B):

    …is different from the subtonic in the minor key (which is Bb):

    “In The Major Key…”

    The distance between the subtonic and the tonic is a half-step and you can see that in the key of C major:

    …between B and C:

    “In The Minor Key…”

    The distance between the subtonic and the tonic is a whole-step and you can see that in the key of C minor:

    …between Bb and C:

    “In A Nutshell…”

    The interval between the subtonic and the tonic matters a lot and I’ll tell you why this is so in a bit.

    Meanwhile, note that it’s a half-step between the subtonic and tonic in the major key and a whole-step between the subtonic and tonic in the minor key.

    “Why Does The Interval Between The Subtonic And Tonic Matter?”

    Well, it is the interval or distance between the subtonic and tonic that determines if the subtonic is a leading note or not.

    A subtonic is only considered a leading note when it is a half-step below the tonic. For example, the interval between B and C (which are the subtonic and tonic in the major key):

    …is a half-step. Consequently, B (the subtonic in the key of C major) is a leading note.

    The subtonic in the key of C minor (which is Bb):

    …is a whole-step below the tonic and is therefore NOT a leading note.

    Final Words

    The term subtonic is generic while leading note is specific.

    While subtonic can be used for every seventh tone (irrespective of its distance from the tonic), the term leading note is specifically used for the seventh tones that are a half-step below the tonic.

    Alright! Very special thanks to my mentor and teacher, Jermaine Griggs, for the opportunity to share these helpful insights with you. I’m looking out for your contributions, questions, and suggestions in the comment section.

    I hope this helps.

    Thanks for reading and see you in the next lesson.

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    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.




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    { 5 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Alan Sloanes

    Thanks again for another very informative article, I really appreciate the clear and precise way you explain things. Please keep them coming.

    Reply

    2 Chuku Onyemachi

    Hi Alan,

    I really appreciate this comment and it’s encouraging to hear this.

    Thank you a million times,

    Dr. Pokey.

    Reply

    3 Alison

    Therefore can we conclude from the lesson that for ALL major scales, the seventh note could be called a sub-tonic or a leading note since it is formed using
    WWHWWWH then there is always going to be a half note between the sub tonic and the tonic notes?

    Reply

    4 Chuku Onyemachi

    Thanks for asking, Alison.

    The seventh tone of the scale is technically known as the subtonic. The use of the term “leading note” would only make reference to its function.

    Unless you’re talking about the function of the seventh tone of the scale, the most appropriate term is the subtonic.

    Reply

    5 Osanor

    Secondary leading-tone
    In contrast to secondary dominant chords, these chords resolve up a half step. … The type of diminished seventh chord is typically related to the type of tonicized triad: If the tonicized triad is minor, the leading-tone chord is fully diminished seventh chord.

    Reply

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