Tonality and modality form a unit in most music, right? You are in F Major or in D minor etc...

Is there a name for the two entities together seen as a unity? I'm working on some musical software and I am searching for a term to name that entity (rather than ToneAndMode).

  • 1
    Is there any particular reason that the word "key" is not sufficient?
    – Stephan B
    Jul 19, 2013 at 14:25
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    The key signature is a good start point - if you're asking about relative major/minor, as the question suggests.
    – Tim
    Jul 19, 2013 at 14:36
  • For me, key implies abstracting the overview from a tonal perspective but I might be wrong
    – Whimusical
    Jul 19, 2013 at 15:58
  • Yes! key is perfect. As you can guess I'm not that current in music theory :-), thanks!
    – Joan
    Jul 19, 2013 at 22:52
  • Well I meant that for me key usually implies concretely a tonal perspective where alterations are likely accidents. It is really a complicated question :)
    – Whimusical
    Jul 20, 2013 at 18:28

2 Answers 2


Tonality can be used to describe that you are in a key, major or minor, and that you have a Dominant V chord that is the primary means of resolving back to I.

Modality describes playing within a given mode or scale and that the primary means of returning to I is not from a Dominant V. Most rock/hiphop/funk/rnb/soul is modal (certainly not all).

Important note- You can play in the major or minor mode (Ionian/Aeolian) and be playing modally. The easiest way I can think of to illustrate the difference is with Minor vs Aeolian. If you are in minor you will make a chromatic alteration to your 7th degree in the scale to create a leading tone that consequently makes the V chord dominant (would be minor), hence scales like Harmonic Minor. If you are paying Aeolian your V chord will remain minor and won't always be used as a means of resolving to I; often in Aeolian bVII will fill that role.

So they are different things but they derive from the same set of notes. So if you play any naturally occurring scale, then the same notes starting somewhere other than I, then you are playing another mode and all of the naturally occurring modes/diatonic scales are contained within that.


As far as I understand, the concept you look for is Scale.

An scale can be used for either modality or tonality. It all depends on the tonal center (or root if you want it generic since it would be more appropiate "modal center" in the distinction), in the shape of a drone note, emphasis on mode alterations or traditional cadences.

For instance, the principal example is the diatonic scale and its 7 grades which has been used for ages for both tonal and modal pieces, it is the minimum reduction shared concept or structure from my point of view.

We could also say, at least when dealing with harmony (and if you only have in mind ancient or greek modes), that both tonal and modal music can be categorized as ternary in 99.999% of cases, as they are both stacked in thirds, and usually as diatonic as well, but I am not sure that would be correct, as analogously, a quartal armony or non-diatonic scale can have grades and modes and even form a superset where some chords could be actually thirds-based and conform a tonal piece for a while.

  • Many contemporary guitarist will play mixed modal scales with a tonal center. The practice can be at least traced back to Claude Debussey's nocturne "Sirènes". Perhaps the term polymodal might apply?
    – filzilla
    Jul 19, 2013 at 18:32
  • I agree that scale is close to the concept but I prefer key (from a reply above) as I have the sensation that includes the tonality more than scale (I might be completely wrong). Thanks for your reply!
    – Joan
    Jul 19, 2013 at 22:57
  • But is a bit heteredox (albeit done) to say you are in the key of G mixolidyan for instance. Most of classics would say you are in C major key. That is why im not sure if key is appropiated concept that aligns both as generic concepts. By the way, very interesting the polymodal perspective. But this has more to do on how this tonality/modality changes over time. Of course it is common to change the root or mode (even key changes), as in grunge
    – Whimusical
    Jul 20, 2013 at 18:26
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    I would think a piece in mixolydian with its tone center on G would normally be written as G major, with accidentals applied to cancel all the F-sharps. Likewise pieces in lydian centered on F, or dorian centered on D would be written as F major and D minor, respectively, with accidentals cancelling all the B-flats. None of those pieces would have any sharps or flats in their mode, but would all nonetheless typically be written with sharps or flats in the key signature.
    – supercat
    Mar 12, 2015 at 16:59

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