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In music tonality is the character that a composition has through the hierarchical relationships of all its tones and chordss to the definite center, or tonic. Tonality is sometimes used interchangably with key.

Tonality is more specifically the entire system of compositional techniques, procedures, and materials used in the common practice period and most popular music. This includes the use of the major scale or minor scale and their triadic chords and functions. Tonal music can be contrasted with atonal music, which does not feel as if it has a tonal center. Musical sensations associated with tonality include consonance, dissonance, and resolution. Almost all tonal music begins and ends on the tonic of the piece.

Tonality, however, may be considered more generally with no restrictions as to the date or place at which the music was produced, or as to the materials used. In fact, many people, including Webern, consider all music to be tonal in that music is always perceived as having a center. Centric is sometimes used to describe music which is not traditionally tonal in that it used triads of a diatonic scale but which nevertheless has relatively strong tonal center. Other terms which have been used in an attempt clarify are tonical and tonicality, as in "possesing a tonic."

Vocabulary of Tonal Organization

Tonal music's basic form has a scale of seven notes, and builds chords on these seven notes. All chords in tonal music are described by which step, or degree, of the scale they are on. The chord is then further described by which notes are used to make the chord itself. Chords may or may not be built solely with the seven notes of the basic scale.

In tonal notation, each note on the scale is designated by a Roman numeral, or, in solfege, by the well known words Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti.

Tonic - I - "Do" Supertonic - II - "Re" Mediant - III - "Mi" Sub-Dominant - IV - "Fa" Dominant - V - "So" Sub-Mediant - VI - "La" Leading - VII - "Ti"

Thus "I" describes the tonic chord at a given time. To describe a chord progression, the roman numerals of the chords are listed. Note that the notes of a chord in a chord progression do not have to be sounded at once - they can be broken up, some notes sounded together and some alone, or other means determined by "figuration". The chord in a chord progression then describes which chord people "feel" is sounding, and not a chord which is necessarily sounded at the same time.

Thus IV-V-I describes a chord progression of a chord based on the fourth note of a scale, then one based on the fifth note of the scale, and then one on the first note of the scale.

To further describe chords, whether the roman numeral is capitalized or not describes whether the chord is a major chord, or a minor chord.

Theory of Tonal Music

Tonality in music is similar in function to perspective in painting - it is a system for organizing elements of music, both for the listener to be able to understand those elements, for the musician to be able to interpret the standards, lead sheet or score, and for the composer to be able to focus the development of their music. The practice of tonal music is based on establishing a "tonality", creating tension by destabilizing it, and then re-establishing that key. All other chords will, while a key is established, be felt to have a certain distance from that key. This determines how musicians who understand the style will play those notes. In classical tonal practice, the sounding of the dominant chord followed by the tonic triad is the basis for establishing a tonality.

Tonality focuses on "triads" of three notes which form chords when sounded together, or arpeggios when broken apart. The essence of tonality is establishing by musical means one triad as the most stable triad in the piece of music, and relating other triads as leading to it. Other chords imply a distance from a basic triad, which the music is supposed to establish by melody and harmony.

The most powerful means of doing this is the cadence which is a series of two more more chords played in succession which "closes" a section of music. The more powerful the cadence, the larger the section of music it can close. Music Theory classifies different kinds of cadences, and describes the relationship between different cadences and structure. The overwhelmingly common practice in tonal harmony is to have a dissonant chord built on V lead to the chord built on I. This is the basis of the "dominant-tonic" or "tonic-dominant" relationship. To change the key is not merely to sound a triad, it is to have the listener expect that a particular chord will be heard in a consonant form, and another chord, said to have the "dominant function" be heard before it as dissonant.

This is what is meant by tonality having a "hierarchical" relationship. One triad, the tonic triad, is the "center of gravity" to which other chords are supposed to lead. One cadence is the central form to which all others lead. All elements in tonal music share this hierarchy, and are used to reinforce it, even if, temporarily, the feel of key is attacked.

To establish momentum in tonal music, it is necessary to establish certain sounds as stable, or consonant and others as unstable or dissonant. Music theory does not use the words consonant and dissonant in the same sense that is in common use. Instead, in coutnerpoint, a dissonant note is not one that sounds unpleasant, but, instead a note which is supposed to resolve to another note. In tonal harmony, a dissonance is a chord that is supposed to resolve to another, more stable, chord.

The means for doing this are described by the rules of harmony and counterpoint, though some influential theorists perfer the term "through-bass" instead of harmony, the concept is the same. Counterpoint is the study of linear resolutions of music, while harmony encompasses the sequences of chords which form a chord progression.

A successful tonal piece of music, or a successful performance of one, will give the listener a feeling that a particular chord - the tonic chord - is the most stable and final. It will then use musical materials to tell the musician and the listener how far the music is from that tonal center, most commonly, though not always, to heighten the sense of movement and drama as to how the music will resolve the tonic chord.

In the vast majority of tonal music, one mode is the central mode of the piece, generally either the major scale or the minor scale. The major scale has the seven notes of the diatonic scale. However, the minor scale, in common practice harmony, often substitutes other notes depending on whether the melody is ascending or descending. The basic seven notes of a scale are notated in the key signature, and whether the piece is in the major or minor is either stated in the title, or implied in the piece. While other scales and modes are used in tonal music, particularly after 1890, these two are the scales which are considered the most normal.

Common practice placed a great deal of emphasis on the correct use of cadences to structure music, and cadences were placed precisely to define the sections of a work. However, such strict use of cadences gradually gave way to more complex procedures where whole families of chords were used to imply particular distance from the tonal center. Composers, beginning in the late 18th Century began using chords which temporarily suspended a sense of key, first by making the whether the music was major or minor. There was also a gradual increase in the use of notes which were not part of the basic 7 notes, called chromaticism.

At any given time in a piece of tonal music, one chord is implied as the chord which will end cadences, this is the "key" that is felt. The key which is felt to close the whole piece is the key the piece is "in". This does not have to be the final chord of the piece, and in the 1600's and much of the 1700's, minor pieces would often be ended on a major triad, or "Picardy Third". Changing which chord is felt to be the tonic triad is refered to as "modulation". Tonal practice establishes rules for how to "establish" a new key by chord progressions and melodic material.

Within a particular key, each note, and hence the chords built on that note, have different names, based on their relationship to the tonic.

Pieces of tonal music are then described by what key is established, what relationship a chord has to that established key, and what modulation or progression that chord implies.

While tonality is the most common form of organizing Western Music, it is not universal, nor is the seven note scale universal, many folk musics and the art music of many cultures focuses on a pentatonic, or five note scale, including Beijing Opera, the folk music of Hungary, and the musical traditions of Japan.

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