There is a lot of very valuable information about these terms that I have been reading lately - inline on SE and on other places on the web:

What's the difference between "modal music" and "tonal music"?
Tonality and Modality together
Tonality of modes?

[Thanks to @Dom for a ton of links - the guy knows his way around here at SE (amongst other guys)...]

But an accurate systematical (and practical) understanding of phenomena like cadences, progressions, scales, chords and their naming conventions (formal and informal) etc., depends all on a correct definition of these basic terms - and - at the end of the day, the subject at hand is still very theoretical and confusing. So I was wondering

  • can one (at least to what degree) rely on these basic definitions and

  • if there is a more practical way to actually back up the accuracy of these definitions and sources

I have chosen the Q&A facility of SE to share my insights on this subject rather than to comment or answer the different posts because people in general and especially in this place (including myself - sometimes ;-) tend to feel attacked or embarrassed and start contradicting on principle and even down-voting other correct information just for the same reason. I also tried to structure it as good as possible in order to make the thorough (but not complicated) exposition a good read. Hope you see it the same way.

  • 1
    By and large, you should treat this site like Wikipedia: take our information at face value, confirm with third-party sources, and continue. Even though most of us here have an idea of what we're talking about, we all make mistakes from time to time. I'd recommend investing in some music theory / history books for your concrete definitions. Sep 1, 2015 at 13:21

1 Answer 1


To get started I'll offer a short answer to these two questions

  1. almost - but not entirely
  2. Yes - by providing real world examples which are accessible to everyone


  1. Just some short basics so that everyone is one the same page
  2. A little aside to honor pentatonic scales
  3. Modality and potential confusion when it gets 'jazzy'...
  4. The 'Mixolydian' Blues - And the confusion continuous...
  5. Modality and the colors of traditional 'Church-Modes'
  6. A first glimpse at Tonality
  7. The definition of Tonality
  8. Conclusion

  • Just some short basics so that everyone is one the same page

Scales and their roots in general - although I am talking almost exclusively about diatonic heptatonic (7-note) scales and modes in this article - do mainly get defined by the distribution of their semi-tones and whole-tones which is leading to characteristic intervals (as seen from the root note) for each mode. With alterations (tensions in Jazz-speak) you even get one-and-a-half-tone steps between two notes which leads of course to an extended set of scales which differ from the traditional scales in color and usage. These extended scales should be treated as 'scales' only and NOT as a means of defining new 'modes'. Our environment is diatonic/heptatonic and has a clearly defined set of notes.

  • A little aside to honor pentatonic scales

As music that is played with pentatonic scales only, tends to be less functional structured (at least as seen from a western-harmonical-functional point of view),...

[here I am talking about eastern/asian music in the broadest sense where the whole 'key' or 'tonality' or 'mode' (see below) of the composition is pentatonic - in contrast to using a pentatonic 'scale' over a diatonic 'mode' chord-structure]

...the notion of a root may not be prevalent and that important. So if you are playing a pentatonic 'scale' over a chord in a certain diatonic 'mode' that has a certain harmonical-functional structure, you have to search for the root of the pentatonic scale 'within' this functional structure. And you should definitely not confuse the fact that you are playing an e.g. Major-Pentatonic 'scale' with the assumption that you are playing in a Major 'mode'.

Unless you don't clearly FEEL a pentatonic MODE and only HEAR a pentatonic SCALE, finding the root is subject to the above said.

Of course one can justify the naming convention 'Major-Pentatonic-Scale' or 'Minor-Pentatonic-Scale' by referring to very ancient music-theory literature that states...

[without - of course - actually referring to the pentatonic system/tonality (we will discuss these terms later) at all but rather to Modality - 'modes' - only]

...that scales can be arranged into two groups - either 'major-like' or 'minor-like' - by taking under consideration their MEDIANT (the 3rd as seen from the root of the 'scale') and the mi-fa position which simply means the position of the first semitone in the scale of the mode at hand.

So judging by the 'mediant' - M3 or m3 - you could consider calling a 'Major-Pentatonic-Scale' being 'major-like' and a 'Minor-Pentatonic-Scale' being 'minor-like'. But they are far away from being a major mode. Or would you call a subset of notes (namely the 3 notes of a triad) representative for a whole diatonic 7-note scale? Pentatonic doesn't even have a semitone in its repertoire but two one-and-a-half step intervals which the diatonic scales are lacking at all!

Talking about a 'C major pentatonic' scale should not tempt one to think he is in a Major mode environment when searching for the root of the scale. Pentatonic scales do by nature have five inversions which can themselves be called the 5 'modes' of Pentatonic although they have nothing to do with modality in the traditional meaning of the word.

So 'C major pentatonic' or 'C minor pentatonic' is just an unfortunately chosen naming convention that implies far to strong an affiliation to a 'tonality'. And by naming the remaining 3 modes/inversions of a pentatonic scale 'dorian/mixolydian/whatever Pentatonic' we are committing an even bigger bogus than we already did with major and minor - because now we are bringing Modality into play, alongside with Tonality, Diatonic and Pentatonic.

If you want to know all and even a little more about Modality, including sources and references definitely ask http://chat.stackexchange.com/users/135597/patrx2 for a little chit-chat on that subject. This guy is really 'OFF' ;-) and amazing - he kept me up until 5 in the morning to snatch as much information about the really old days as I could until he could finally get rid of me - big thanks to him.

And I shall quote him one more time a little later when it comes to a definition of 'Tonality'...

  • Modality and potential confusion when it gets 'jazzy'...

A loose e.g. DORIAN 'scale' has (from a functional/structured point of view) little to do with the DORIAN 'mode'. A dorian scale (having a 'minor' characteristic/flavor) can be played over any minor chord regardless of its harmonical functionality in the surrounding context. You just have to bring the chord (with its tensions) in harmony with the notes of the scale and you can add a lot of new colors to your playing. The scale is not much under the obligation of a harmonic functional structure.

In 'Modal-Jazz' where the actually idea is to leave this (too) tight functional (harmonical and formal) corset behind, people sometimes forget about the difference between 'mode' (which is essentially like a root/key PLUS the distribution of the intervals of its intrinsic scale IN a given harmonical-functional environment) and 'scale' (which is only about intervals and colors in a more 'loose' context).

  • The 'Mixolydian' Blues - And the confusion continuous...

If you use all the different modal scales in a modal-jazz-composition that is only loosely coupled to a certain key it will be very hard to recognize an actual root-mode or root-scale if you want. The composition will sound 'modal' to you but most of the times that's it. As if 'modal' already were a key/mode/tonality.

In a composition that has a certain harmonical-functional structure like a Blues you will find the root of the key right away - even if you were using only mixolydian scales on every different chord of your song - regardless of being I, II, IV, V or VI.

I7   IV7  I7   I7   IV7  IV7  I7   VI7  II7  V7   I7 VI7 II7 V7
---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ----  ----   ----

C7   F7   C7   C7   F7   F7   C7   A7   D7   G7    C7 A7  D7 V7
---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ---- ----  ----   ----  

You definitely wouldn't call the 'Tonality' of this Blues 'mixolydian' ;-)

But the distinguishing features of a Blues aren't only of a formal kind. It's not only the 12-bar scheme that we use but rather the tensions that are so prevalent and provide the typical flavor. So when seeing it that way we should definitely include these essential tensions in our scale.

The b7th of the TONICA and the b7th of the SUBDOMINANT. Does that mean we are already leaving 'Tonality' by using a scale that incorporates 9-tones? OK - you might say - we are only using a sub-set! Well...

C-Eb-F-G-Bb... - is this 'pentatonic'?

No no - add the #11 - well...

C-Eb-F-F#-G-Bb... - 'hexatonic'?

So what have we got here? Mixolydian, Modality, Pentatonic, Hexatonic, or just a 'simple' Blues(-ta-tonic)? Or is a blues A-Tonal ? We will see about that when talking about 'Tonality' a little later.

In a composition that is written in a true 'mode' you will feel the charm and peculiarity of the mode at hand through the whole song. And you will know that it is Dorian (like many irish/celtic music)

-> Enya - 'Orinoco Flow', Clannad, Loreena McKennitt

or Mixolydian (in a lot of greek songs). This was exploited shamelessly in the 70's German 'Schlager-Musik'.

-> Katja Ebstein - 'Der Stern von Mykonos', Mireille Mathieu - 'Acropolis Adieu' or Demis Roussos - 'Goodbye my love, goodbye' and also in the popular classics domain -> Agnes Baltsa - 'Songs my country tought me'.

  • Modality and the colors of traditional 'Church-Modes'

Every traditional '(Church)-Mode' (and of course its intrinsic scale) has a characteristic interval that distinguishes it uniquely from the other modes.

- the dorian 6th  
- the phrygian 2nd  
- the lydian 4th  
- the mixolydian 7th  
- the locrian 5th  

The two remaining modes are the 'reference' for these modes in terms of interval-distribution and have no characteristic interval

- ionian (today called 'major' mode) -> 'major-like'  
- aeolian (today called 'minor' mode) -> 'minor-like'

Ionian - when compared to the other modes with 'Major-Flavor' - namely lydian and mixolydian - does not have a #4 like lydian or a b7th like mixolydian. That's why they are characteristic for these scales ;-)

Same happens to Dorian and Phrygian in comparison to the Aeolian mode!

So this distribution sets the playground for any functional activity in the composition itself - in a traditional/classical reflection of the issue at hand (church-modes).

Although the 'Church-Modes' are major-like and minor-like we do not refer to them by saying e.g. D minor Dorian, E minor Phrygian, F major Lydian, G major Mixolydian, A minor Aeolian or even B diminished Locrian! We should have obeyed these very rules with the same persistence when it came to the naming of the pentatonic scales (see above).

There is no Dorian IN C by interpreting Dorian in the scale of C major to be the range from D to D. There is only D dorian that has its semi-tones (mi-fa position) between 2nd and 3rd respectively between 6th and 7th. The same counts for F# dorian or Cbb dorian. There is a root and a scale with a clearly defined interval structure - simple, but that's it...

In a Dorian 'cadence' like I - IV - I (e.g. Dm - G - Dm) you will feel this Dorian flavor - given by its characteristic interval - way stronger than in a Dorian 'scale' played over any minor chord regardless of its function in an already rather unstructured environment.

And of course I am talking of a harmonic structure not of a formal structure.

When you play a dorian song to someone and really emphasize the characteristic interval the 'dorian 6th' by playing a progression that uses a lot of IVs - Cm F F Bb Bb F F Bb Bb F F Cm Cm - nobody ever will tell you, you've played that nice sad minor song - they will rather refer to it as a melancholic but positive tune - never minor. Do the same with a lydian song and people will freak out because of this damn #4 giving you no resting place - no real TONICA - far away from the ionian effect - that one might be tempted to call 'major' right away. We do not even have to bother to speak about locrian;-)

We see - Modality (7 modes) and Tonality (major/minor - at least by someone's definition) are not to be confused! So...

  • A first glimpse at Tonality

Where we are used to have a strong DOMINANT functionality of the chord on the V (preferably with a b7th added to the triad) in a major mode - this concept will get totally obsolete in a Dorian mode. Simply because the Dorian mode is lacking of a major chord with a b7th on the V. That's why we 'invented'

- **harmonic minor** and  
- **melodic  minor**  

Historically they are not a part of the original 7 'Church-Modes' but for some reason we like and want this Dominant-7th chord on V in a 'I - V - I' cadence (e.g. Am - E7 - Am). Here I should for clearness' sake write 'i - V - i' as one can actually see by the chord example. A plain 'i - v - i' aeolian cadence (e.g. Am - Em - Am) didn't seem to be satisfying enough, very likely because of the lack of the 'Leitton' to which we got used from the major-mode.

[Leitton/leading tone: In the major-mode the 3rd of the chord on V which leads upwards with a semi-tone step to the actual tonic root of the key -> e.g. the note B in a G7 - C cadence in a C major key/tonality]

In Dorian you might rather use a cadence of I - VII - I to achieve a similar DOMINANT functional effect. (e.g. Dm - C - Dm)

So in a modal environment the DOMINANT isn't necessarily on V - it is just a chord that is 'dominant' - beside the even more dominant TONICA...

Reminds me of the joke about a keyboard-player being asked about the Subdominant of F - and the baffled guy answering - but isn't F the Subdominant??? (Also works with a guitarist in the key of 'A' I guess)

  • The definition of 'Tonality'

By following the links that are mentioned in the question you will see a strong tendency to hold on to a certain definition of the terminus 'Tonality' that is expressed e.g. by Andrew in his wonderful and spot-on answer to the question about the difference between tonality and modality.

In short - strong awareness of a tonic center, major and minor keys, surrounding infrastructure of a harmonic (and formal) scaffolding, functional harmony, leading tone etc.

And now I shall quote Patrick again who straight away said:

I'd dispute this definition. A great deal of tonal music uses a hierarchical functional collection of pitches with characteristic cadences, which is just what modal polyphony does. In modal polyphony, you will frequently avoid or weaken progressions that imply other tonal centres. That implies a strong notion of functionality.

Would we ever call music of the late romanticism and early 20th century A-tonal - like Bartok and composers of this epoch? Does listening to 'Tristan and Isolde' or Wagnerian never-ending chains of dominant-7th chords in general lead us to the conclusion that we left 'Tonality' just because it does not match or concur with the different definitions of diverse sources that we almost blindly take for granted?

A real world example of the more modern kind comes into mind when you listen to one of the most incredible Songs ever written. I am talking about 'Calling You' by Bob Telson from the movie 'Bagdad Cafe' or 'Out of Rosenheim' in the german translation.

If you glimpse over the harmonica solo - which actually introduces a completely new sound-sphere by picturing the vastness of the land with a new 'key' and turning back to the original sound and 'Tonality' after a short sequence of eight bars - there is not a single 'Tonica' in the whole song.

You can find a maj7 chord with the 3rd (M3) in the bass at the beginning of the chord progression of the verse (Bbmaj7/D) that - although not implementing a b7th - has more the tendency of almost being the DOMINANT to the IV. And actually the Coda of the song states poetically:

Bbmaj7/D - Eb add#11 (over and out) - In a key of Bb-major...

And there is nothing close to a tonic in the chorus (refrain) either - in fact the whole chorus is a modulation (which consists more or less of the progression III - VI - II - V in two different variations) to the key of C-minor - but no tonic as far as the 'ear' can reach. And unless the solo eventually comes along this chorus-modulation doesn't even enter into a C-minor key either and when we expect the solo to finally begin a bridge comes along and makes another modulation with a two bar II - V progression in minor to aim at Bb-minor to eventually start the solo in the parallel Major-mode Db-Major.

A super-cleverly spun net of suspension, disappointment, resumption, fulfillment...

Of course you could interpret verse and coda of being lydian-ish and the refrain aeolian-ish and the Solo to be strictly major but you would definitely refrain from NOT giving this song the attribute of 'Tonality' - despite of a Coda ending on a chord that sounds very like a TONICA but is actually the SUBDOMINANT, a chorus that fixes a harmonic center of the song by introducing a modulation to a key that never gets reached and a bridge that reconsiders everything to finally get lost in thin air. - Well, I guess it's time to re-read Patrick's dispute of the definition of 'Tonality'...

Beside the Original-Sound-Track there exists a superb version sung by Paul Young where the wonderful Stephie Wonder plays an incredible harmonica solo over the before mentioned 8 bars.

To not to be negligent with examples - here is the piano part that can be played easily by any musician. I chose this notation instead of a piano-score for the music-illiterates ;-) Every column is one chord and one bar, bottom line is the bass (played with the left hand). Como time - Step on the sustain-pedal of your instrument ;-) and play 4 straight eights and let them sound till the end of the bar. Enjoy the 3 tonic centers throughout the song without playing a single TONICA and just a tiny little bit of DOMINANT:

Verse:      Chorus(Refrain):        Brdg: Solo:               (1 bar) Coda:

F  F  F  F  Bb A  Ab G  Bb A  Ab G  EB F  F  Gb F  Eb F  Gb F  (F--F) F  G
Bb Bb Bb Bb Eb F  F  F  G  E# F  F  F  Eb Eb Eb Eb Db Eb Eb Eb (Eb--) Bb Bb
A  A  A  G  C  C  C  B  D  C# C  B  Bb A  Ab Ab Ab Gb Ab Ab Ab (Bb-A) A  A
__________  ______________________  ____  __________________________  _____
D  Eb G  C  Gb Eb D  G  E  A  D  G  C  F  Db Db Db Db Db Db Db (C--F) D  Eb  

  • Conclusion

We have definitely seen that we shouldn't take for granted the definitions of basic terms that we find on the internet and that we use to define and name other higher level concepts like chords, scales etc.

Tonality can't just be explained by squeezing it into a minor/major box and seasoning it with extended qualities like functional harmony.

Modality is not only a loose concept of intervals over any given root but rather a complex concept of functional harmony.

So we have to ask ourselves, how much does this all effect the classification and interpretation of other termini up the chain when we define their meaning by using this basic musical vocabulary and not being consistent in the first place. How big is the probability to cause misconception and misunderstanding? I think it is quite remarkable and that we shouldn't underestimate it in order to understand each other better when we are talking 'Music'! But everyone has to decide that for him/herself.

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