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This article is about the musical system. For linguistic feature, see Tone (linguistics).
Perfect authentic cadence (IV–V–I progression, in four-part harmony) in C major About this sound Play . "Tonal music is built around these tonic and dominant arrival points [cadences], and they form one of the fundamental building blocks of musical structure" (Benjamin, Horvitz, and Nelson 2008, 63).

Tonality is a musical system in which pitches or chords are arranged so as to induce a hierarchy of perceived stabilities and attractions. The pitch or chord with the greatest stability is called the tonic. Tonality was the predominant musical system in the European tradition of classical music from the late 1500s until early in the 20th century, and remains almost entirely the basis of popular music[citation needed][clarification needed]. The term tonalité originated with Alexandre-Étienne Choron (1810) and was borrowed by François-Joseph Fétis in 1840 (Reti 1958,[page needed]; Simms 1975, 119; Judd 1998a, 5; Heyer 2001; Brown 2005, xiii). According to Carl Dahlhaus, however, the term tonalité was only coined by Castil-Blaze in 1821 (Dahlhaus 1967, 960; Dahlhaus 1980, 51).

Although Fétis used it as a general term for a system of musical organization and spoke of types de tonalités rather than a single system, today the term is most often used to refer to major–minor tonality, the system of musical organization of the common practice period. Major-minor tonality is also called harmonic tonality, diatonic tonality, common practice tonality, functional tonality, or just tonality. This idea requires the player/listener to make a subjective evaluation of whether this type of arrangement (universal to modern music, such as soul, pop, rock, and blues)[citation needed] is the most interesting and universal melody, and is therefore innate and appealing to all humans, or is simply the modern and recent historiographic conception of "music"[clarification needed].

Characteristics and features[edit]

Main article: Diatonic scale

David Cope (1997,[page needed]) considers key, consonance and dissonance (relaxation and tension, respectively), and hierarchical relationships to be the three most basic concepts in tonality.

Carl Dahlhaus (1990,[page needed]) lists the characteristic schemata of tonal harmony, "typified in the compositional formulae of the 16th [sic] and early 17th centuries" as the "complete cadence" I–ii–V–I, I–IV–V–I, I–IV–I–V–I; the circle of fifths progression I–IV–vii°–iii–vi–ii–V–I; and the major–minor parallelism: minor v–i–VII–III equals major: iii–vi–V–I; or minor: III–VII–i–v equals major: I–V–vi–iii. The last of these progressions is characterized by "retrograde" harmonic motion.


Main article: Musical form

Consonance and dissonance[edit]

History and theory[edit]

18th century[edit]

Jean-Philippe Rameau's Treatise on Harmony (1722) is the earliest effort to explain tonal harmony through a coherent system based on acoustical principles (Girdlestone 1969, 520), built upon the functional unit being the triad, with inversions.

19th century[edit]

The term "tonalité" (tonality) was first used in 1810 by Alexandre Choron in the preface "Sommaire de l'histoire de la musique" (Brown 2005, xiii) to the "Dictionnaire historique des musiciens artistes et amateurs" (which he published in collaboration with François-Joseph-Marie Fayolle) to describe the arrangement of the dominant and subdominant above and below the tonic—a constellation that had been made familiar by Rameau. According to Choron, this pattern, which he called tonalité moderne, distinguished modern music's harmonic organization from that of earlier [pre 17th century] music, including "tonalité des Grecs" (ancient Greek modes) and "tonalité ecclésiastique" (plainchant) (Choron 1810, xxxvii–xl; Hyer 2001). According to Choron, the beginnings of this modern tonality are found in the music of Claudio Monteverdi around the year 1595, but it was more than a century later that the full application of tonal harmony finally supplanted the older reliance on the melodic orientation of the church modes, in the music of the Neapolitan School—most especially that of Francesco Durante (Choron 1810, xxxviii, xl).

François-Joseph Fétis developed the concept of tonalité in the 1830s and 1840s (Brown 2005, xiii), finally codifying his theory of tonality in 1844, in his Traité complet de la théorie et de la pratique de l'harmonie (Hyer 2001; Wangermée and Ellis 2001). Fétis saw tonalité moderne as the historically evolving phenomenon with three stages: tonality of ordre transitonique ("transitonic order"), of ordre pluritonique ("pluritonic order") and, finally, ordre omnitonique ("omnitonic order"). The "transitonic" phase of tonality he connected with the late Monteverdi. He described his earliest example of tonalité moderne thus: "In the passage quoted here from Monteverdi's madrigal (Cruda amarilli, mm. 9–19 and 24–30), one sees a tonality determined by the accord parfait [root position major chord] on the tonic, by the sixth chord assigned to the chords on the third and seventh degrees of the scale, by the optional choice of the accord parfait or the sixth chord on the sixth degree, and finally, by the accord parfait and, above all, by the unprepared seventh chord (with major third) on the dominant" (Fétis 1844, 171). Among most subtle representatives of "pluritonic order" there were Mozart and Rossini; this stage he saw as the culmination and perfection of tonalité moderne. The romantic tonality of Berlioz and especially Wagner he related to "omnitonic order" with its "insatiable desire for modulation" (Hyer 2002, 748). His prophetic vision of the omnitonic order (though he didn't approve it personally) as the way of further development of tonality was a remarkable innovation to historic and theoretic concepts of the 19th century (Simms 1975, 132).

Tonalité ancienne Fetis described as tonality of ordre unitonique (establishing one key and remaining in that key for the duration of the piece). The principal example of this "unitonic order" tonality he saw in the Western plainchant.

Fétis believed that tonality, tonalité moderne, was entirely cultural, saying, "For the elements of music, nature provides nothing but a multitude of tones differing in pitch, duration, and intensity by the greater or least degree ... The conception of the relationships that exist among them is awakened in the intellect, and, by the action of sensitivity on the one hand, and will on the other, the mind coordinates the tones into different series, each of which corresponds to a particular class of emotions, sentiments, and ideas. Hence these series become various types of tonalities" (Fétis 1844, 11–12). "But one will say, 'What is the principle behind these scales, and what, if not acoustic phenomena and the laws of mathematics, has set the order of their tones?' I respond that this principle is purely metaphysical [anthropological]. We conceive this order and the melodic and harmonic phenomena that spring from it out of our conformation and education" (Fétis 1844, 249).

Fétis' "Traité complet" was very popular. In France alone the book was printed between 1844 and 1903 twenty times. The 1st edition was printed in Paris and Brussels in 1844, the 9th edition was printed in Paris in 1864, and the 20th edition was printed in Paris in 1903. For more bibliographical information, see

In contrast, Hugo Riemann believed tonality, "affinities between tones" or Tonverwandtschaften, was entirely natural and, following Moritz Hauptmann (1853), that the major third and perfect fifth were the only "directly intelligible" intervals, and that I, IV, and V, the tonic, subdominant, and dominant were related by the perfect fifths between their root notes (Dahlhaus 1990, 101–02).

It is in this era that the word tonality was popularized by Fétis (Wangermée and Ellis 2001).

Theorists such as Hugo Riemann, and later Edward Lowinsky and others, pushed back the date at which modern tonality began, and the cadence began to be seen as the definitive way that a tonality is established in a work of music (Judd 1998).

In the music of some late-Romantic or post-Romantic composers such as Richard Wagner, Hugo Wolf, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Alexander Skryabin, and others, we find a variety of harmonic and linear procedures that have the effect of weakening functional tonality. These procedures may produce a suspension of tonality or may create a sense of tonal ambiguity, even to the point that at times the sense of tonality is completely lost. Schoenberg described this kind of tonality (with references to the music of Wagner, Mahler, and himself, amongst others) as "aufgehobene Tonalität" and "schwebende Tonalität" (Schoenberg 1922, 444, 459–60), usually rendered in English as "suspended" ("not in effect", "cancelled") tonality and "fluctuating" ("suspended", "not yet decided") tonality, respectively (Schoenberg 1978, 383).

20th century[edit]

Tonality may be considered generally, with no restrictions on the date or place the music was produced, and little restriction on the materials and methods used. This definition includes pre-17th century western music, as well as much non-western music. By the middle of the 20th century, it had become "evident that triadic structure does not necessarily generate a tone center, that non-triadic harmonic formations may be made to function as referential elements, and that the assumption of a twelve-tone complex does not preclude the existence of tone centers" (Perle 1991, 8).

In the early 20th century, the tonality which had prevailed since the 17th century was seen to have reached a crisis or break down point. Because of the "increased use of the ambiguous chords, the less probable harmonic progressions, and the more unusual melodic and rhythmic inflections" (Meyer 1967, 241), the syntax of functional harmony was loosened to the point where "At best, the felt probabilities of the style system had become obscure; at worst, they were approaching a uniformity which provided few guides for either composition or listening" (Meyer 1967, 241).

Alfred Einstein wrote that in ancient China, "the development from the non-semitonal pentatonic to the seven-note scale is certainly traceable, even though the old pentatonic always remained the foundation of its music" (Einstein 1954, 7). He notes a similar development in ancient Japan and Java.

Theoretical underpinnings[edit]

One area of disagreement going back to the origin of the term tonality is whether tonality is natural or inherent in acoustical phenomena, whether it is inherent in the human nervous system or a psychological construct, whether it is inborn or learned, and to what degree it is all these things (Meyer 1967, 236). A viewpoint held by many theorists since the third quarter of the 19th century, following the publication in 1862 of the first edition of Helmholtz's On the Sensation of Tone (Helmholtz 1877), holds that diatonic scales and tonality arise from natural overtones (Riemann 1872, Riemann 1875, Riemann 1882, Riemann 1893, Riemann 1905, Riemann 1914–15; Schenker 1906–35; Hindemith 1937–70).

Rudolph Réti differentiates between harmonic tonality of the traditional kind found in homophony, and melodic tonality, as in monophony. In the harmonic kind, tonality is produced through the V-I chord progression, <d> <t>. He argues that in the progression I-x-V-I (and all progressions), V-I is the only step "which as such produces the effect of tonality," and that all other chord successions, diatonic or not, being more or less similar to the tonic-dominant, are "the composer's free invention." He describes melodic tonality (the term coined independently and 10 years earlier by Estonian composer Jaan Soonvald (Rais 1992, 46)) as being "entirely different from the classical type," wherein, "the whole line is to be understood as a musical unit mainly through its relationship to this basic note [the tonic]," this note not always being the tonic as interpreted according to harmonic tonality. His examples are ancient Jewish and Gregorian chant and other Eastern music, and he points out how these melodies often may be interrupted at any point and returned to the tonic, yet harmonically tonal melodies, such as that from Mozart's The Magic Flute below, are actually "strict harmonic-rhythmic pattern[s]," and include many points "from which it is impossible, that is, illogical, unless we want to destroy the innermost sense of the whole line" to return to the tonic (Reti 1958,[page needed]).

The tonic feels more or less natural after each note of, for example, Mozart's The Magic Flute

About this sound Play normally  and compare with About this sound impossible return  after B
x = return to tonic near inevitable
ⓧ (circled x) = possible but not inevitable
circle = impossible
(Reti 1958,[page needed])

Consequently, he argues, melodically tonal melodies resist harmonization and only reemerge in western music after, "harmonic tonality was abandoned," as in the music of Claude Debussy: "melodic tonality plus modulation is [Debussy's] modern tonality" (Reti 1958, 23).

Tonality outside common-practice period[edit]

The noun "tonality" and adjective "tonal" are widely applied also, in studies of early Western music and in non-Western traditional music (Arabic maqam, Indian raga, Indonesian slendro etc.), to the "systematic arrangements of pitch phenomena and relations between them" (Hyer 2001; Hyer 2002). Felix Wörner, Ullrich Scheideler and Philip Rupprecht in a book dedicated to the concept and practice of tonality between 1900 and 1950 describe it generally as "the awareness of key in music" (Tonality 2012, 11).

Harold Powers, in a series of articles, used terms "sixteenth-century tonalities" (Powers 1981, 439; Powers 1992, 12; Powers 1996, 221) and "Renaissance tonality" (Powers 1996, 226). He borrowed German "Tonartentyp" from Siegfried Hermelink (who related it to Palestrina, see Hermelink 1960), translated it into English as "tonal type" (Powers 1981, 439), and systematically applied the concept of "tonal types" (in contrast to "tonality") to Renaissance polyphony. Cristle Collins Judd (the author of many articles and a thesis dedicated to the early pitch systems) found "tonalities" in this sense in motets of Josquin Desprez (Judd 1992). Judd also wrote of "chant-based tonality" (Judd 1998c), meaning "tonal" polyphonic compositions based on plainchant. Peter Lefferts found "tonal types" in the French polyphonic chanson of the 14th century (Lefferts 1995), Italian musicologists Marco Mangani and Daniele Sabaino in the late Renaissance music (Mangani and Sabaino 2008), and so on. The wide usage of "tonality" and "tonal" has been supported by several other musicologists (of diverse provenance); it can be traced, e.g., in the articles collected in Judd 1998a.

A possible reason for this broader usage of terms "tonality" and "tonal" is the attempt to translate German "Tonart" as "tonality" and "Tonarten-" prefix as "tonal" (for example, it is rendered so in the seminal New Grove article "Mode", Powers et al. 2001, §V, 1 et passim). Therefore, two different German words "Tonart" and "Tonalität" have sometimes been translated as "tonality" although they are not the same words in German.

Computational methods to determine the key[edit]

In Music Information Retrieval, techniques have been developed to determine the key of a piece of classical Western music (recorded in audio data format) automatically. These methods are often based on a compressed representation of the pitch content in a 12-dimensional pitch-class profile (chromagram) and a subsequent procedure of finding the best match between this representation and one of the prototype vectors of the 24 minor and major keys (Purwins, Blankertz, and Obermayer 2000, 270–72). For implementation, often the constant Q transform is used, displaying the musical signal on a log frequency scale. Although a radical (over)simplification of the concept of tonality, such methods can predict the key of classical Western music well for most pieces. Other methods also take into consideration the sequentiality of music.

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Jim Samson (1977) suggests the following discussions of tonality as defined by Fétis, Helmholtz, Riemann, D'Indy, Adler, Yasser, and others:
    • Beswick, Delbert M. 1950. "The Problem of Tonality in Seventeenth Century Music". Ph.D. thesis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina. p. 1–29. OCLC accession number 12778863.
    • Shirlaw, Matthew. 1917. The Theory of Harmony: An Inquiry into the Natural Principles of Harmony; with an Examination of the Chief Systems of Harmony from Rameau to the Present Day. London: Novello & Co. (Reprinted New York: Da Capo Press, 1969. ISBN 0-306-71658-5.)
  • Roig-Francolí, Miguel A. 2008. Understanding Post-Tonal Music. New York: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-293624-X.

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