What is Tonality in Music

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What is Tonality in Music?

What is Tonality in Music? Tonality in music is intricately linked to both melody and harmony. Simply put, tonality in music refers to the overall sound of a piece of music as defined by the key it is played in. Depending on how you look at it, and how the music has been composed, the tonality can either come before the melody, or the melody first then the tonality! A bit like the age-old question of what came first, the chicken or the egg?

When studying tonality in music, it is important to consider several things. These will be explained in further detail, but come under the broader musical terms of accidentals, scales, and overall sound.

If you would like a copy of the Elements of Music Mind Maps used in this blog post, click here her for your FREE download.


Tonality in Music Definition

Tonality in Music

The definition of tonality in music is the overall relationship between melody and harmony and how they create a unique sound set when combined. As said earlier, the tonality of a piece of music depends on two other elements of music – melody and harmony. Often a composer will write a melody for a piece of music, using a certain key signature. Once the melody is created, in the given key signature, then the harmony is created and based on the chords that are found within this key signature, supporting the melody.

Tonality, Melody and Harmony are all interdependent on each other. The melody cannot exist without a tonality of the home key signature, and the harmony cannot exist without the melody and the key signature it is based on.

To understand tonality in music, there are quite a few music theory definitions that need to be understood. These will be all explained in further detail, but please know that this information is meant to be an introduction to tonality in music. If you want to know more about the music theory around tonality, key signatures and the rules of harmony, then you will need to do some further independent research.

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An accidental in music is a sign placed before a note that either raises or lowers a note by a semitone. An accidental is better known as sharps or flats. See the table below to see what these music symbols look like. To understand an accidental, you also need to know what tones and semitones are.

To make sense of both a tone and semitone, look at the keyboard image below. A semitone, as you can see, if you are going between the notes E and F, it is only two steps. There is NOT a black note in between.  But, if you look at the notes C and D, then there is a black note in between. This is a tone, or, if you are counting the steps, it is three steps. Including each note in the tone – C, C# and D, there are three. Of course, there can be a semitone OR a tone starting on any note.

Knowing these tones and semitones, will help you understand the order and arrangement of tones and semitones in either a major or minor scale.



A scale in music terms, is a series of eight notes that span an octave. An octave contains 8 notes, and in music, this would be from, for example, a low C to a high C.

There are many different types of scales. The most common ones used in the European music tradition are the Major and Minor scales. The difference between each scale is the order and arrangement of the tones and semitones. The overall sound of these scales is slightly different. This will be explained later in this article.

The order of tones and semitones in a Major scale is as follows – T T S T T T S


In a Minor scale, there is a difference between the ascending and descending scale.

A Minor scale ascending – T S T T T T S. For the E Minor scale, this would mean the notes are, in ascending order – E F# G A B C# D# E


A Minor scale descending – T T S T T S T. For the E Minor scale, this would mean the notes are, in descending order – E D C B A G F# E


Besides the Major and Minor scale, there are several others that have origins from all parts of the globe. Some of these different scales are listed below.

Mode – a family of scales that originated in early Medieval Church music. Some of these modes have names such as Aeolian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian. These all have a different order of tones and semitones.

Blues scale – a scale with six notes that features several flat accidentals.

Pentatonic scale – a scale with five notes. The common pentatonic scale uses the notes from a major scale, and misses the 4th and 7th note of the scale. In the case of a C Major Pentatonic scale, this would mean the notes of the scale are – C D E G A

Chromatic Scale – these scales use all 12 of the black and white notes in a scale.


Overall Sound

The overall sound of a piece of music depends on many different factors and can even be a matter of opinion. Generally, though, music falls under two main categories of overall sound, no matter what scale or home key is being used. The two terms used to describe the overall tonality of a piece of music are consonant and dissonant.

Consonant – music that has a pleasant sound

Dissonant – music that has an unpleasant sound

There are several things that contribute to the overall sound or tonality of a piece of music. These are listed and defined below.

Atonal – music without a key or home center. This music usually has a dissonant sound

Tone Row – a set pattern of the 12 notes from a chromatic scale. This type of “scale” was used in music known as 12 Tone Music, written in the early parts of the 20th century. Some tone row music is also known as Aleatoric Music – or Chance Music. This is because the composer would choose the order of the tones or pitches in a random or chance order. This music has a very dissonant sound, and purposely makes the listener feel uncomfortable! A famous composer that used this technique is Arnold Schoenberg. Listen to the music of Piano Concerto, Opus 42

Diatonic – this is music that uses the notes of the scale and has no use of accidentals. It is a term often applied to music written in a major key. Diatonic music is usually described as consonant sounding.

Not all music will continue to have a consonant or dissonant sound. Composers can change the overall sound or tonality of the music through a few techniques, and for a variety of reasons. One main way that music can change is using modulation. The definition of modulation in music is to change or move away from the original key.

Often when a piece of music modulates or changes keys, it is done in the following ways.

Up or down a semitone. More often the music will go up a semitone. This creates a “lift” in the music. It is a common technique used in popular music. Usually, the music keeps the overall sound of the music.

From Major to Minor, OR Minor to Major. This type of modulation changes the overall feel and sound of the music. It is common to label music that is written in a major key as “happy”, and music that is written in a “minor” key as having a sadder feel or sound. So, when a composer changes away from the original key, depending on what it started in, the overall tonality and sound can change from consonant to dissonant, or vice versa. Listen to these popular Movie themes that have been changed from a Major key to a Minor one. You will notice that the changed examples of tonality sound vastly different and create a different mood or emotion.

Here listen to some more movie themes that are changed from a Major key to a minor one.

Another type of modulation is to change into a related, but different key. It is common in classical music, for the music to modulate from the original key, to the dominant (fifth) key, and back again. In the case of C Major, this would mean that the music would go from C Major to G Major and back again to C Major.


Why is Tonality in Music Important?

Tonality in music is a particularly important Element of Music. The Elements of Music – Melody, Tonality and Harmony are all dependent on each other. The melody determines the tonality of the music, and the tonality of the music determines the harmony, then the harmony contributes to the tonality! It is hard to separate these three Elements of Music, because they cannot exist without each other.

When you develop a good understanding of tonality and harmony, you will find it easier to work out music by “ear”. To have a musical “ear” can take a lot of practice, and it helps if you know what key signature or “tonality” is being used in the music, because from there you can work out the harmony and other parts much easier.


Music Appreciation and Tonality

Knowing what contributes to tonality in music will help you study, perform and appreciate music in general. Even though it is a matter of opinion as to whether a piece of music is consonant or dissonant, or pleasant or unpleasant, it helps if you know what contributes to the overall sound.

Next time you are listening to a piece of music, think about the tonality of the music. Is it consonant or dissonant sounding? Is it written in a major or minor key? Or is it written in using and unusual scale? Are there any use of accidentals in the music? Does the music change or modulate? How does it change?

As a musician, make sure you learn and know what key you are performing in. When you know what the home key is, then you can start to add or change the music. Maybe you could add in a modulation? Or maybe, instead of performing the music in a major key, change the overall tonality to a minor key and see what happens! You might like the change!

If you would like a copy of the Elements of Music Mind Maps used in this blog post, click here her for your FREE download.

Until next time

Julia from Jooya


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