I'm asking this using tonal in the sense it was described in a highly voted best answer I found with search on topic of tonal vs modal. I interpret what is said in it that tonality implies common practice syntax, generalized as tonic-pre-dominant-dominant-tonic by my understanding, whereas modality shares properties of tonality which include having a tonal center, and working with a scale with some kind of threshold for interval spacing, but differs by absence of diatonic function, the syntax, or voice leading conventions of the common practice period. In it rose the notion that there is music with an anchoring note that can be explicitly described as "non-tonal." It seems bizarre to me, but it was posted from someone with music education qualifications.

I'd have thought in general, the foundation of what tonality is, is to describe, before schemata coming into play, the treatment of a keynote as an axis that other notes revolve around, the axis implication presented musically through interweaving, bookending, or pedal point, and maybe other ways to perceptually urge a formation of axis, these things potentially being implicit themselves ex. mi-re-do--do--do-- melody repeating over chord changes as an implied pedal of sorts. — Did any of these forms of regularities occur in church modes and thus invalidate such a definition?

Having a tonal center or whatever other title to the same effect, a note that is important in a way the others are not, even if it is the only categorical split between notes, seems to necessitate a hierarchy of tension by definition. Is this where I've misunderstood? Is function not to be conflated with tension? Is function rather referring to part of a schema, as a stylistic convention in ways to apply and organize tension?

The I-V-vi-IV ostinato it seems to me, unless described as daisy-chaining phrases involving elided plagal cadence — which I would feel is contrived or unsatisfactory in a way — is not a fully realized syntax associated with tonality, whereas the passamezzo progressions arguably are. Does that mean it is modal? Does the answer change if dealing with ostinato of I-V-I-IV, or I-IV-I-V?

I apologize if any of the musing I supplied with the questions make the questions come off rhetorical or disingenuous. I really am looking to get to the bottom of this, and this looks like the right place to ask. The other message board on the net that's adequately populated is unfortunately plagued by some rather aggressive underachieving. I'll really appreciate if someone can clarify and expound on the matter, thanks!

  • May answer fully later, but a quick answer is if you use the chords I-IV-V at all and have some a typical cadence including the plagal cadence it's tonal.
    – Dom
    Commented Jan 23, 2016 at 22:14
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    I presuppose that your are fluent in English. I consider myself above average in communication skills and intelligence and have tested more than once in the genus level in IQ test. Unfortunately however, your superfluous display of unequivocally stupendous elegance in your pontificatory execution of extensively abundant faculty for use of substantially distinguished terminology, tends to contribute to an obfuscatory diminishment of the ability for individuals in possession of less than extraordinary competence in sesquipedalian interpretation to decipher the essence of your question. Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 8:08
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    I'm just sayin ..... PS: It's difficult for simple minded musicians such as myself to understand exactly what you are asking. Please simplify or clarify the question in order to encourage and facilitate more answers. Thanks. Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 8:12
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    From en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tonality : At least eight distinct senses of the word "tonality", some mutually exclusive, have been identified. If you want your word meanings neatly pinned down, maybe tonal is not a word you want to be using at all - at least in a 'general' sense where the context does not clarify what's meant? Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 12:17
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    This is an interesting question but it is hard to know how to answer it in its current form. To begin with, could you provide a link to the answer that you refer to in your first sentence? In general, I think it is unhelpful to think of "modal" and "tonal" as two separate systems which are opposed to each other.
    – user1449
    Commented Jan 28, 2016 at 20:21

2 Answers 2


If I am understanding your question correctly (no guarantee!), I think you are using Tonal to mean Major or Minor, and Modal to mean everything else that has a tonal center. Before I attempt to answer the basic question, though, I feel obligated to remind us that modal INCLUDES tonal used in this sense. What we now call minor (at least natural minor as opposed to harmonic minor or melodic minor) was originally just one of the modes: namely Aeolian mode. What we now call Major was originally also just one of the modes: namely Ionian. The reason they eventually became known as major and minor was that they were the two most popular modes, and as modality in general became temporarily poorly known, they came to have their own non-modal names. But the bottom line is, all modes are still modal! (If you see what I mean.)

So, knowing that a mode differs from a major or minor key only by the alteration (flatting or sharping) of only one or two pitches in the scale (with the exception of Locrian mode, which is hardly ever used), it follows that the effect on chord progression will only be by the changing from major to minor, or vice versa, of the chords in the prgression. For example, the Mixolydian mode, which is almost major, would affect the chords in a common progression as follows: what is I-IV-V-I in major would become I-IV-v-I in Mixolydian, so that there can no longer be such a thing as an Authentic Cadence.

The I-V-vi-IV ostitanto you mention, in Mixolydian would be I-v-vi-IV, which, while it would still 'work' would not have quite the same effect. But note that the cadence created as you daisy-chain it is STILL plagal.

If you really want to understand the business of chordal tension that you allude to, I suggest you study the writings of Paul Hindemith, who dealt with that very issue at length.

Hope this helps. If not, let me know and I'll try again.

  • study the terms tonality, function on wikipedia and the passamezzo in German wikipedia (translated in english) will bring much more clearness. Commented May 10, 2019 at 8:49
  • I like the motivation for modes, that you gave. But I think, I see modes as entirely just major, minor, or basically everything in terms of major key. I mean, it does help to generate quickly, chord progressions, by taking sequence and shifting through modes. But I argue the greater view is that, it's still the mechanisms of the underlying key, which build the sounds. Modes in my view if have any use, are a greater structure of modulation. Commented Mar 15, 2021 at 4:43

This very interesting question implies somehow that there exists (respectively has been) always only one understanding (respectively one single interpretation) and definition of music-theoretical terms such as tonality and function!

If you don’t want to be misunderstood you have mention the authors or the period the use of your terms are relating. I assume this was the intention of your introduction.

Assuming you mean the time of today I’d like to quote this section of wiki


"All harmonic idioms in popular music are tonal, and none is without function" (Tagg 2003, 534).[vague] Tonality is an organized system of tones (e.g., the tones of a major or minor scale) in which one tone (the tonic) becomes the central point for the remaining tones. The other tones in a tonal piece are all defined in terms of their relationship to the tonic. In tonality, the tonic (tonal center) is the tone of complete relaxation and stability, the target toward which other tones lead (Benward & Saker 2003, 36). The cadence (coming to rest point) in which the dominant chord or dominant seventh chord resolves to the tonic chord plays an important role in establishing the tonality of a piece. "Tonal music is music that is unified and dimensional. Music is unified if it is exhaustively referable to a precompositional system generated by a single constructive principle derived from a basic scale-type; it is dimensional if it can nonetheless be distinguished from that precompositional ordering" (Pitt 1995, 299).


Although Fétis used it as a general term for a system of musical organization and spoke of types de tonalités rather than a single system, today the term is most often used to refer to major–minor tonality, the system of musical organization of the common practice period. Major-minor tonality is also called harmonic tonality (in the title of Carl Dahlhaus 1990, translating the German harmonische Tonalität), diatonic tonality, common practice tonality, functional tonality, or just tonality.

Following my personal concept of tonality there is no immense difference between modal and tonal music and the chord progression I-V-vi-IV could be considered as a passamezzo post-moderno.

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