It seems like tonality and consonance go hand in hand, but I’m still unsure if consonance is necessary to establish a tonal center, or if consonance is just the preferred sound against a tonal center. In other words, do dissonant intervals against the tonal center diminish its sense of tonality, or are the two mutually exclusive?

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the concept of tonality, so please correct any poor assumptions I may have made asking this question.


Tonality is a system of composition (or the theory describing it), and one aspect of Tonal music (that is, music following Tonality) is that there is a pitch center. However, Non-Tonal music, that is music composed outside the system of Tonality, can still have a pitch center, though it needn't. Atonal music is composed to avoid the sense of pitch center.

The answer to your question is that Tonality, by its rules of construction, depends on consonance. However, you can create a pitch-centric piece comprising only dissonances. For example consider the following composition:



Each vertical pair is played simultaneously. If you emphasize the lower notes, C will sound like the pitch center; If you emphasize the upper notes, D will sound like the pitch center. Every dyad is dissonant, yet the ear perceives a pitch center because the "horizontal" pitches follow a directed pattern. So this piece can be heard as pitch centric, but non-tonal.

Now, just to muddy the waters, my saying that the above dyads are "dissonant" somewhat abuses the term. My intervals are dissonant as dissonance is defined in the Tonal system. That is, in another music system, or to someone unfamiliar with tonality, my composition might be quite pleasing (doubtful, but ...). Further, my composition achieves it's sense of pitch center by relying on the (horizontal) use of familiar Tonal patterns (i.e., short ascending and descending scales). Had I ended the composition one dyad earlier (on E/D) a listener familiar with Tonality would likely hear it as ambiguous, whereas another listener might hear the emphasized final pitch as a perfectly satisfactory "center".

Dissonance, ultimately, is in the ear of the beholder.

  • As an aside, do construct a piece containing only dissonances, you must always have two distinct pitches at any given time. A single note (or unison) is always consonant. – Aaron Jul 14 '20 at 5:35

Consonance and dissonance are crucial for the tonality. But finally it is the chord progression gives the clue. To define the tonality you need at least 2 chords:

E.g. a triad GCD could be Vsus in C or Isus in G major. Only the resolution of the dissonance will decide in which tonic we are.

Another point are our listening habits. In the blues I7 IV7 V7 are all chords with a minor seventh. The bluesers hear them as consonant an I7 as tonic.

It is expected that musical imagery may occur as a consequence of everyday conditioning through music listening, with everyday listening shaping INMI experiences. The results confirm a close relationship between listening behavior and experiences of INMI, providing tentative support for this prediction“.


INMI stands for involuntary musical imagery. Am I leaning too far out of the window saying that hearing a tonic is a kind of INMI? We are conditioned and conditionable to everything.

  • I7 IV7 and V7 are all dominant seventh chords. They all contain m7. – Tim Jul 14 '20 at 7:34
  • That‘ what I say. And therefore they are dissonant ... oh, I understand what you mean: minor is referring to the seventh not to the third. – Albrecht Hügli Jul 14 '20 at 12:04

Does tonality require consonance?

One of the difficulties with answering that is that the words 'tonality' and 'tonal' are not well-defined - Wikipedia points out that there are a number of senses in which the term can be meant.

I’m still unsure if consonance is necessary to establish a tonal center, or if consonance is just the preferred sound against a tonal center.

You don't need consonance, or any harmony at all, to establish a sense of 'home note' - you can do that with an unaccompanied melody purely with phrasing and accenting, even if it contains no notes that are consonant wit the 'home note'. Whether such a 'home note' would qualify as a 'tonal center' might depend on what definition of 'tonal' you are presuming.

On the other hand, if we take Wikipedia's opening definition:

"Tonality is the arrangement of pitches and/or chords of a musical work in a hierarchy of perceived relations, stabilities, attractions and directionality.."

Then yes, generally it would be said that we need consonance to achieve those stabilities and attractions (and, indeed, dissonance to establish 'directionality').

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