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A "guide tone" search generates a slew of hits.

A "tonal center" search generates a slew of hits.

A "guide tone tonal center" search generates one hit.

In that thread the term guide tone appears once: "...strong underlying chromatic guide tone line through this progression..."

What is the difference between tonal center and guide tone? How are they related?

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There's a huge difference between the two. A tonal center is the note your harmony and melody will sound at home at; while guide tones are the notes that not only greatly define the harmony at that point, but also typically help lead from the current chord to the following chord.

Think of it this way. In a typical ii7 - V7 - I7 in C major, C is the tonal center throughout the progression. The guide tones however change based on the chord, and by default, are the 3rd and 7th of a 7th chord so in this case those guide tones would be F and C for Dm7, B and F for G7, and E and B for CMaj7. As you can see, from these notes we create a nice chromatic line of F-F-E and C-B-B for the individual guide tones which can greatly be taken advantage of in voice leading the progression.

  • Just to add to Dom's point for clarification: there are almost—not quite, but almost—two definitions of "guide tone" that you may hear in different contexts. In the context of a chord voicing it may refer to the fact that the 3 & 7 are the most defining tones that guide the harmony. You could play just the 3 & 7 and get the harmony across. In a melodic context—the more common usage—it refers to the same notes used to connect smoothly from chord to chord as Dom explained. Its the same notes, but has a slightly different meaning depending on contextual usage. – user37496 Oct 7 '17 at 16:22

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