As the title says, what's the difference between "modal music" and "tonal music"? Is there also any other classification besides "modal music" and "tonal music"?


7 Answers 7


"Modal" and "tonal" both describe works that:

  1. have one defined "home" pitch, or "tonal center," around which the melody and harmony are based;
  2. have only one tonal center at a time, though that tonal center can change throughout a piece; and
  3. use a seven-note diatonic scale as their pitch collections.

The difference between modal and tonal are in the harmonic languages surrounding the tonal center. Tonality implies the system of common-practice harmony well-established by the eighteenth century that uses major and minor keys. The tonal center of a tonal work is the first note of the major or minor scale in use as the pitch collection. The harmonic implications of tonality are more than just the use of major and minor scales, as functional harmony is also a feature of tonal music. The progression from the dominant sonority (a major triad with or without a minor seventh from the triad root based on the fifth note of the major or minor scale in use, or a similar-sounding substitute such as a fully-diminished seventh chord based on the leading tone) to the tonic triad to end a work is just one characteristic of functional harmony. This characteristic is so important that, if the dominant sonority is instead a minor chord (thereby lacking the leading tone), the work no longer sounds tonal. This means that even in a minor key, the seventh note of the scale is very often raised so that it becomes the leading tone.

Modal music uses diatonic scales that are not necessarily major or minor and does not use functional harmony as we understand it within tonality. The term modal is most often associated with the eight church modes. The tonal center of these modes is called its "final." All the church modes use a pattern of half and whole steps that could be played on the white keys of a piano. You may notice that there are only four different patterns among the church modes; the difference between e.g. "dorian" and "hypodorian" is whether the final occurs at or near the bottom of the melodic range or whether the final occurs in the middle of the melodic range. The term "modal" has expanded in more modern music to encompass any non-tonal music that uses a diatonic pitch collection and has a tonal center.

There are many types of music other than modal and tonal. Some examples include:

  1. chromatic music, which uses all twelve of the standard Western pitch classes instead of the diatonic pitch collection, and which may or may not have a tonal center;
  2. serial music, sometimes called "dodecaphonic," which is chromatic music that intentionally avoids a tonal center, often by avoiding repetition of a pitch class until all twelve pitch classes have been used;
  3. bitonal or polytonal music, which uses multiple diatonic pitch collections and multiple tonal centers simultaneously;
  4. microtonal music, which uses pitches with frequencies between those of the standard twelve Western pitch classes;
  5. whole-tone music, which uses a six-note scale comprised entirely of whole steps; and
  6. non-Western music, which uses a pitch collection outside the twelve Western pitches (this is not a good classification, as there are many cultures with many different kinds of music that are very different from one another in pitch collection).

I did not even touch on music that does not use pitches at all; for example, an unpitched percussion work would clearly not be modal or tonal.

There are entire books on functional harmony, modes, etc., but I hope this has been a reasonable summary to answer your question.

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    What substitutes for common-practice functional harmony in modal music? And how different are ancient modal music, church modal music and modern modal music from each other? Commented May 30, 2012 at 18:10
  • With 'chromatic music' do you mean twelve-tone technique or do you refer to a wider range of music/composing than that? Commented May 31, 2012 at 17:53
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    Best answer EVER here
    – Whimusical
    Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 20:37
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    @BrunoSchiavo I actually don't know of such a book offhand. The closest thing that comes to mind is the course notes from a class I took with José Martins at the University of Iowa, but I would have to dig to find them, and I'm not sure I have permission to share anyway. I believe he now teaches at the Catholic University of Portugal, but I cannot find confirmation of that fact, and my lack of Portuguese language knowledge makes an investigation difficult, Google Translate notwithstanding.
    – Andrew
    Commented Jul 25, 2016 at 15:35
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    @Andrew some time has passed since the question was asked and answered. I've been fully into the modal music systems of the east and I would like to add (and would be great if you add more about it yourself in your own reply) that modal music is not restricted to the eight modal church modes. The church modes came after the Byzantine Octoechos system which drew a lot from the Ottoman Makam system, which at the same time has strong root connections with Arabic Maqam and Persian Dastgah systems. All of them very old modal traditions so modal music is not limited to church modes or jazz scales. Commented Oct 9, 2017 at 21:02

Modern modal music has 7 modes built from the major scale.. You can have a composition in all but the last one since the 1st 3rd and 5th notes of this mode will result in a diminished triad which is unstable.Modes are also built on the melodic and harmonic minor scales. Fewer compositions are seen using the major modes and all modes in jazz are used to improvise.


Natural modes are of the harmonic and melodic relationships to the tonal center or chord center of the progression and these are built from different steps of the diatonic scale. The scale of the mode is the notes in stepwise succession. Other modes that are altered or come from a diatonic variant such as harmonic or melodic minor (Dorian #4 or Lydian #5) or harmonic major (Mixolydian b2) can be used to provide a tonal center or chord center in a progression also.

A progression with the same chord set as the major scale that being in C using 7th chords

Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmaj7 Gdom7 Am7 Bhd7

based around the Em chord but in the key of C would be Phrygian. Say a progression of

Em7 Am7 Bhd7 Em7

to have the i-iv-v-i represented in the Phrygian iii-vi- vii-iii.

Now Phrygian is part of two diatonic sets. The prodominate major (such as Ionian-Aeolian) Mixolydian-Phrygian and the Prodominate minor Phrygian-Ionian. Secondary dominants and secondary half diminished can be used for your progressions to reinforce the definitive major (Ionian) or the definitive minor (Phrygian).

The book to get is "Modal Diatonicism" available on Amazon.com and at Barnes and Noble. It has in depth theory and method for modal writing and explains the diatonic sets and their secondaries with the resulting diatonic variants for each. It has 100+ notational examples and is extremely useful as a text for understanding modes and as a reference for compositional methods.


The simplest answer was given to me by my jazz teacher, Mr. Bennett Friedman.

Music tonality is like gravity; it wants to get back to its home. Chords are pushing the music forward. Tonal music is based around the chord progression. Modal music is organized around melody. It's the relationship of note to note.

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    I disagree with this statement. In both tonal and modal music the melody and chord progression play an important role, but how they do it is very different.
    – Dom
    Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 19:37
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    I did say it was a simple answer. The other answers are extremely complex and to a newcomer may seem overwhelming. His description is for a beginner jazz/pop theory class which contains some students whose only experience is from a basic music course. I completely agree with your disagreement, but you must understand that I specifically stated that it is a simple answer. Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 19:58
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    It's not a simpler answer as the main point is wrong or at least misguided in nature. They both are based around melody and chord progressions which is why I disagree with this statement and I don't really see that as a "simplified" answer.
    – Dom
    Commented Nov 29, 2015 at 20:58
  • You have every right to disagree, however, simply disagreeing does not make what I said any less correct. Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 22:36
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    Tonal music is based around the chord progression ?! I wonder what Mozart or Brahms would have to say about that....
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 2:12

althought modal and tonal are related, because they both come from the same cultural and historic environment, usually when you say "modal" it means that a composition, or part of a composition, is created using the typical notes of that particular scale, that gives that particular "flava", atmosphere, and this is just using the melodies , that can create a sonic texture using a repetitive sound (like in Indian traditional music) -which can be seen as a "tonic" -or you can use one chord (or two) like in modal jazz (Miles Davis' "Flamenco Sketches" is a good example) or in other music genres that use this technique (the Doors' Light my fire's solo - is another example) -or music from the Impressionism era such as Debussy, or Ravel

Tonal music uses all chords built on the scale - and they can move with fast or slow movements, depending on the tempo- but create compositions that give a different atmosphere, maybe more complex because of the chords that move often, compared to modal music - A good example of tonal music is Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and virtually all the music from the Baroque and Classical era -and the Romantic, as well

Of course we can have a "mix" of these 2 different composition techniques, like in Debussy's "Menuet" (from the Suite Bergamasque) or many jazz/fusion compositions, like in some works from Herbie Hancock , John Mc Laughlin and so on


Basically the difference can be defined as "horizontal" (modal), or "vertical"(tonal). Ancient writers defined harmony as the progression of successive notes and their relationship to each other. Modal music does not follow the pulse of a chord progression and thus allows structures not possible in regular 32 bar, (for example) patterns.


There is so much dysfunction in western musical terminology and nomenclature. The most simple, basic definition of tonality is the relationship between pitches. All music, with the exception of atonal, twelve tone and perhaps polytonal music display some degree of tonality. Medieval music has tonal center and often resolves on the parent tone of a given mode, what was referred to as the final. As western music evolved through the Renaissance, the use of more accidentals and homophonic structures gave rise to the more complex chord theory of the Baroque. By then, music is modulating, moving through differing pitches and their relationship to the chords generated. There are no chords in medieval music or music that is purely modal. So tonal music can be thought of as being more expansive than modal.

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    "there are no chords in medieval music or music that is purely modal": are you saying that e.g. Josquin's Mille regretz is not purely modal or that the F-C-A on the second syllable of the piece isn't a chord?
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 28, 2023 at 10:05

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