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Is there music without a tonic?

I.e., the structure of which is such that it makes no sense to talk about some stable home base note where we return. Or maybe music tonality changes so frequent that there is no point in talking about a tonic?

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4 Answers 4

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The simple answer is yes there is. The biggest example is atonal music where that is the direct goal to use pitches, but outside of the the concepts of things like tonality.

There is also music like drumlines which the music is purely rhythmic and pitches also don't matter.

It should be pointed out the the concept of tonic and tonality is a western music idea so other cultures do not all necessarily have similar concepts. Even the ones that do talking in terms of tonic and tonality will not make the most sense.

There are also some examples of music where you could talk about it terms of tonic and tonality, but it gets stretched really thin due to drifting from tonal concepts, with sprinklings of tonality to ground it. Impressionist composers like Debussy would be good examples of those where talking in terms of tonality is done, but it's one of many and just looking at it tonally won't give you the whole idea.

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    +1 for good answer in general, but “the concept of tonic and tonality is a western music idea” is a bit of an overstatement. The full framework of common practice harmony is specific to the European tradition, but a lot of its core concepts have counterparts in other traditions — and certainly the basic idea of a tonic as “some stable home base note where we return” appears in many (?most) musical traditions.
    – PLL
    Feb 21, 2023 at 11:00
  • @PLL The tonic and tonality itself is a western idea. Most, but not all cultures do have some kind of home note which is why I phrased that way, but it also wouldn't make sense to talk about a tonic when dealing with those cultures.
    – Dom
    Feb 21, 2023 at 14:10
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    @PLL Heh, I was going to say it was an understatement. Disclaimer, it's reductionist to talk about traditional music-cultures hermetically, disregarding any outside influence and globalization. BUT if one were to do so, more human music-making has been monophonic than polyphonic. I was going to tell the OP, the question is almost like "Are there ball games that don't have a home plate." Yes; basketball, football (American and otherwise), lacrosse, etc.. Talking about music in strictly tonal terms is almost like talking about sport as if there's only one. Feb 21, 2023 at 15:09
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    Even within Western tonal music, it might not make sense to talk about a tonic when there are simultaneous parts in different keys (‘polytonality’). (For example, several pieces by Charles Ives, or the ‘Red Weed’ sections from Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds).
    – gidds
    Feb 21, 2023 at 19:52
  • @AndyBonner, Dom: I take your points, but I think you’re reading OP’s use of “tonic” rather more narrowly than they intend it. Certainly, in modern musicology comparing different traditions, “tonic” is generally reserved for the Western tradition or close relatives, and phrases like “home note” are used for similar notions in other traditions — but until one knows that convention, it’s very natural to use “tonic” to mean the broader notion, and OP very clearly means that, writing “i.e. […] some stable home base note where we return.” [cont’d]
    – PLL
    Feb 21, 2023 at 20:15
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Yes.

  • Atonal or 12 tone music, all 12 chromatic scale tones are given equal importance.
  • Polytonal, where there is more than one tonic, so technically the tonic idea still applies, but you are talking about tonics, plural.
  • Pandiatonic, where all the tones of a diatonic scale are used, this is probably more of a vertical harmonic thing, where ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords are used a lot, but it can also involve a sort of evening out of the importance of the various chord, instead of I IV V primary chords getting the focus, I ii iii IV V vi viio are sort of equal, you might say the tonic becomes diffused or ambiguous.

The terms above are often applied to and entire composition or even a composer's style. But you probably want to also consider that sometime just a section or passage may lack tonality. Liszt has a piece titled Bagatelle sans tonalité. I've never tried to analyze it, but I think there are passages that could be given a tonal center while other not. Other examples might include exotic scales like the whole tones or octatonic scales. Debussy's Syrinx is a nice example of his piano prelude Voiles.

I'm not including avant garde music, like musique concrète, or purely percussive music. I assume you meant music where clear pitches are used, but the tonic concept it not.

Also, keep in mind that while the specific word tonic (or its translation in other languages) is a European music theory term, the essential idea is not absent in other musical cultures. Indian and Japanese music, for example, have tonal systems with an idea of a "home" tone and named scale degrees. Tonic and dominant tonality is a European thing, but tonal structuring of pitches and a "home" tone are concepts found throughout the world.

In the broad sense of tonic as "home pitch" the concept is pretty universal and has existed for a long time, pretty much all of recorded music history. IMO it is notable the types of music that don't use a tonic, the types I gave in my initial list, are high art, intellectual forms. It takes some intellectual effort to have music that is tonally structured, not just chaos, and yet does not use a tonic.

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Bimodality

A number of composers have experimented with multiple tonalities. This means that a piece of music can simultaneously be in two or more keys or musical modes.

Thus there is no single "tonic" that can be talked about although there may be a number.

Bimodality is the simultaneous use of two distinct pitch collections. It is more general than bitonality since the "scales" involved need not be traditional scales; if diatonic collections are involved, their pitch centers need not be the familiar major and minor-scale tonics. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bimodality

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In addition to @Dom answer:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve-tone_technique

--- as per the reasonable @brendan comment, most of this does not belong here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microtonal_music

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    Although microtonal music is certainly outside the scope of Western common practice tonality, it can (and often does) have "some stable home base note where we return." I would consider the pitch system and the presence or absence of a tonal center to be independent issues.
    – brendan
    Feb 21, 2023 at 16:04
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    Please avoid link only answers. Feb 21, 2023 at 16:47

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