What is Tonality?

Tonality is a concept; a concept that ruled music from the early 17th-century to the 20th-century. Almost all music written during this period is considered "tonal." While concepts of tonality have changed, composers still write tonal music today. Tonality can best be compared to a language in that "tonality" implies a set of structural and syntactic (grammatical) procedures that together control many compositonal parameters including, but not limited to, melody, rhythm, harmony, structure, and the overall direction of a composition. By "direction" I mean movement toward an anticipated, specific musical goal, whether melodically, harmonically or structurally. While the opposite of tonal is atonal, music written before tonality became primary (as well as music that self-consciously tries to reflect that period) is often referred to as modal.

Tension and Release
In most music, especially tonal music, the listener is presented with a build up of tensions that long for a release in achieving an understood goal. Psychologically, listeners' tensions derive and develop from whether or not a composer chooses to follow through with the expectations he sets up. Consider a piece of music in which the same idea is repeated for five minutes; after five minutes the idea changes to another idea. The way listeners react to this change and the meaning they ascribe to it is based on the expectations created by repeating the initial idea. After several minutes of the same material, we develop an expectation that the piece will consist solely of the same material repeating. At the same time an active listener experiences tension between what they anticipate will be the follow-through for the composition and where the composition actually goes. When the piece changes to a new idea after five minutes, the composer puts a new series of expectations in the listener's mind: "When will that first idea return?"; or, "What will be the next idea?" In his or her expectations, the listener has in mind certain notions as to what would constitute a satisfactory conclusion, follow-through or direction, based on the accepted stylistic norms implied by the initial idea.

When the expectations are acheived we can say that the work has reached its goal. The goal of the work can be something rather simple, such the point of repose found at the end of a line of chant (consider the first line of the chant Puer Natus Est), or something more complex such as the longed for release after the first 45+ minutes of the second act of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Tonal music is exceptionally goal-directed and this is mainly because of the concept of "harmonic progression," that is the journey from one simultaneity of pitches - a chord - to another; one harmony to another or one harmonic area to another.

The Two Levels of Tonality
The concept of tonality can be understood to have two parts: the background harmonic progression and the surface strategy. Think of it like the steel skeleton and outer covering of a skyscraper. The outer covering, or curtain wall, of the building is what the excited tourist sees, even though the underlying steel skeleton really holds the weight of the building.

As an example, consider the folksong: "The More We Get Together" or as it is known in German Ach, du lieber Augustin (Play).

The more we get together, together, together; the more we get together the happier we'll be

For my friends are your friends and your friends are my friends; 

the more we get together the happier we'll be.

The structure of this melody is easy to tease out, especially since it is reflected in the text. we can say that the melody is in an AABA form, with the A phrase distinguished by its opening pitches: "the more we get together." The B phrase contrasts becuase of its different shape. We could consider the B phrase, with its internal repetition to be a sort of transitional or bridge figure between the repetitions of the A phrase. We might also reflect that the B phrase is foreshadowed in the internal repetition at the end of the first A phrase.

The harmonic progression of the tune (the inner skeleton) confirms the observations about structure we derived from the melody (the outer covering of the tune). A simple harmonization would consist of two chords that alternate. Listen to the underpinning while imagining the melody in your head. (Play). I've placed Roman Numerals below the melody to indicate the harmonies. "I" represents a chord built on the first scale degree: do; V, a chord built on the fifth scale degree: sol.

The more we get together, together, together; the more we get together the happier we'll be
   I            I          V          I             I            I           V           I
For my friends are your friends and your friends are my friends; 
 V                  I                  V             I
the more we get together the happier we'll be.
     I            I          V             I

We can see that the structure of the harmonies match up with the structure of the melody as we determined above. The pattern: I-I-V-I-I-I-V-I-V-I-V-I-I-I-V-I; can be broken down into four segments, each with four elements. I-I-V-I; I-I-V-I; V-I-V-I; I-I-V-I. Doing so we see that the first, second and fourth segments are the same and the third repeats the final two elements of the first segment twice. We can also see that the song begins and ends with the same harmony as does each phrase with the exception of the third.

Now listen again to the full song and think of the two elements as one. (Play) In so doing we see how the harmony and melody complement each other.

We're looking here at a very small sample. When someone like Bach is composing a Brandenburg Concerto, he is thinking of similar strategies of opening and closure, skeleton and curtain wall, phrases, transitions, and harmonic progression but on multiple and larger scales. Through it all, it is the background level of harmony that gives long-term coherence over the course in a tonal musical composition. It is the fact of tonality and the harmonic progressions it engenders that makes the listener think that something from one part of a tonal composition is related in some way to something from another part of a tonal composition, whether or not the exact material itself is repeated or varied.

What is the syntax of a tonal composition? or How does this coherence work?

In the folksong above, the letters indicate what we are able to hear intuitively. That is, at the end of the melody we have returned to the same chord that we were at at the beginning of the melody. In this case, over the course of the song, the harmonies have moved back and forth between a tonic chord, indicated by I above, and a dominant chord, indicated by V above. Moving to a higher level of abstraction, that of the entire melody, we have begun at a tonic chord and eventually returned to a tonic chord. It is essentially a progression "there and back again."

In larger works, such as a symphony movement or a Brandenburg Concerto, harmonic progression is not only movement from one particular chord to another but also movement from one harmonic area to another. These harmonic areas are known as keys. Within these keys we find a system of relations, rules and hierarchies that govern how we go from one chord to another. Indeed, tonality is a system of hierarchies: pitch is understood in relation to chords/harmonies, which are in turn understood in relation to the key(s) that they are a part of.

Traditionally, tonal works begin in a home key, proceed through a series of other keys, and return at the end of the work to the home key. This is the background level of any larger scale work. We can think of this as moving from one place to a "far-off point" and then returning back to that place. Each new key that the work explores is annouced and articulated by a type of musical punctuation: a specific cadence or cadential formula - a series of chords that allows the listener to hear a change in tonal focus. In tonal music it is exceedingly rare for a work to not end where it begins.

We can consider the harmonic motion of a musical composition much in the way we could consider a physical journey. Imagine if you were walking from Columbus Avenue at 108th Street to Broadway and 116th street and then returning. Columbus Avenue is one key: you turn the corner at 110th street (a cadence); 110th street is a second key; you turn the corner at Broadway (another cadence); and Broadway is another key. When you return home, you repeat the process in reverse. One could diagram the walk as follows:

Columbus Ave.110th StreetBroadway
Columbia University
Broadway110th StreetColumbus Ave.

That, however, is not the only way to make this journey. If you were in a hurry you might walk up Columbus Avenue continue on Morningside Drive and turn west on 116th street to enter the campus from the eastern entrance and repeating the process in reverse on your return journey. One could diagram that walk as follows:
Columbus Ave.Morningside Drive116th Street
Columbia University
116th StreetMorningside DriveColumbus Ave.

In both these routes when we consider the full journey, the major points of arrival are Columbus Ave and Columbia University - home and the "far-off point." What happens between these points are simply strategies to reach one's destination that change based on the situation presented: whether you need to visit the bank in the first instance or whether you are running late in the second. Some ways to get to class might be considered more standard than others; and there are of course other more complicated ways you could walk to class. So too in harmony. The entire Romantic Era of music is concerned with exploring these other ways of reaching a destination.

Returning to our trip, on the surface level, the walk is concerned with the interactions with individuals, dodging the cracks in the sidewalk and trying not to be hit by trucks as you move from one street to another: each of these is a tension that may or may not be justified. Similarly, in a tonal composition, the surface activity is concerned with sustaining tension between points of arrival (cadences). Listen now to this, variation 25, from Bach's justly famous Goldberg Variations for keyboard, and hear how Bach manages to sustain the tensions of the work before arriving at the specific cadences.

Bach: Goldberg Variations: Variation 25 (Glenn Gould, piano)

In this example Bach builds up tension between his cadences through a process that continually implies cadences in the background and then either delivers them or doesn't at the composer's discretion. The power of the passage is derived from this continual sense of postponement of gratification, with gratification defined by reaching a predetermined goal, here, a proper cadence. Without developing tension, a musical composition would lack any sense of forward movement.


All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
Not to be reprinted without permission.