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Understanding Tonality in Music

Rujuta Patil
Tonality is that principle in music which organizes musical compositions around a central keynote, and lends a sense of harmony to the piece of music.


Tonality is also taken as a synonym for the related concept of 'Key' in music.
We all remember the solfège song, "Doe, a deer, a female deer..." from Sound of Music. With such ease, on singing that song, can one remember the basic syllables of the theory of music. Beyond learning the solfège, we also get to know the different pitches or the variations, like a 'higher' pitch and a 'lower' pitch.
What appeals to the ear is melody and harmony. Any random set of notes or keys put together may not sound good. Why do we enjoy music as a beautiful, aesthetic, or entertaining art form?
Just like percussion is not identified without rhythm, similarly, a tune played on a piano or a violin would not exist without a structural relation between the different notes played in the tune. 'To be in tune' best implies the functional aspect of tonality.

Tonality in Music

Definition: Tonality is a principle by which pitches and chords are arranged around a central note or tonic. Tonic refers to the first note or degree of the diatonic scale (major or minor).
It is primarily a system of relationships between notes, chords, and keys, or sets of notes and chords. This characterized Western music between the 1600s and 1910. Tonality can also be simplified as the organizing of notes, chords, and keys around a centrally or focally important tone.
Tonality is also used to refer to the major and minor scale types. These are both diatonic scales, which are based on the standard use of five tones and two semitones. Melodies and chords are built using the notes of these two scales.
A common example of tonality can be the major tonality, where the tones 'do', 're', 'mi', 'fa', 'so', 'la', and 'ti' are used, with 'do' being the tonal center or home-note. The sense of tonality tells us whether a piece of music sounds right or not.
In this case, if the music ends on the note 'do', it sounds correct or in tune. Or even the order in which the notes are used, like 'do-ti-do' sounds right, as they appear in the melody.
Tonic, in music, is the focus of any musical composition. It is like the most significant degree of the scale. Be it melody or harmony, the tonic or keynote shows the most influence, as that note is revisited a maximum number of times as compared to any other notes. From that stems the adjective of tonal, and thus, the noun tonality.

Tonal Relations

The relationship within every key is a kind of hierarchy; the notes and chords have strong and weak relationships with the keynote or tonic note and to the tonic chord (chord built on that tonic note). Other keys are differently related to the tonic key too.
Tonality is also known to be an attribute of classical music. For example, Indian classical music is known to be tonal. There are several similarities in Indian and Western music. However, tones in Indian music are expressed through melody (raagas), unlike through harmony (use of chords) in Western music.

Tonality in Baroque Music

Before the period of Renaissance, music was based on modality. It changed to be based on harmony, and was directed towards tonality during the Baroque period (1600-1750). This period has witnessed the creation of tonality.
Baroque music expanded the use of musical ornamentation, developed new techniques of playing instruments, and made changes to musical notations. It was during this time that the genres of opera, cantata, sonata, oratorio, and concerto were developed.

Importance of Tonality in Music

With understanding the aspect of tonality, one can easily see how a given piece of music is a blend of the chosen notes and chords. It helps us read how different pitches are organized around one central note - the tonal center. It is a task to develop a sense of tonality.
But once you acquire this perspective, it becomes much easier to be in tune while singing, also while playing an instrument. Being able to recognize the tonal center, or follow it once known, serves as a great asset while learning new styles of music, especially across cultures.
What binds many early forms of music includes many features, tonality being one of them. Children listening to good music from an early age can easily develop the sense of tonality as they learn, recognize, and sing various tonal patterns.
The character of the tones or harmonies in music are also recognized due to tonality. It gives us a feel of the kind of music we are listening to. What makes us distinguish between different types of music―like happy-mood, sad or dark, cheerful, or emotional―is this tonality.