This question was sparked by comments in Sources of harmonic ambiguity in tonal music:

By the user lightning:

EDIT: I would consider anything which is based on a pitch-class hierarchy to be tonal, including pieces based on pentatonic or modal scales, bitonal pieces, pieces with a lot of dissonance or chromaticism, and pieces with chord progressions that are not standard for Classical functional harmony. I'd draw the line at pieces which do not in any way reinforce any pitch-class as central.

By the user Basstickler:

The definition you've provided for tonal definitely includes a lot of things that are definitively not tonal. Also, what is your idea of ambiguity? Are you looking to destablize the piece to make it sound unclear where it may go after a given chord?

So what does and does not count as tonal music? Does bitonality (or higher polytonality) count? What about modal music, music based on blues scales, or music based on the Phrygian Dominant or Double Harmonic scales (note that the Phrygian Dominant scale is the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale)? What about music with no authentic cadences and no plagal cadences--or worse, music that seemingly contains no chord progressions that fit common practice period harmony?

Food for thought--maybe figuring out whether these pieces count as tonal or not may help answer this question:

3 Answers 3


(topo's answer is very good, but I wanted to offer a few other thoughts.)

To understand what "tonal music" is, we have to first define what we mean by "tonality."

The go-to scholarly source on defining it is Brian Hyer's article "Tonality" in The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory. Towards the beginning of his article he states the main difficulty (as I see it):

A further complication (and recurrent tension) has to do with whether the term refers to the objective properties of the music – its fixed, internal structure – or the cognitive experience of listeners, whether tonality is inherent in the music or constitutes what one recent author describes as "a form of consciousness."

But I think he settles on a very good definition shortly thereafter:

the systematic organization of pitch phenomena in both Western and non-Western music.

What's important here is the phrase systematic organization. By this I think Hyer means two things:

  1. First, that the music is hierarchical, and one pitch (the tonic) is more important than all others.

  2. And that this pitch is the focal point on which the music comes to rest.

Hyer might mean a third point, which is the notion of monotonality. If we're privileging one pitch as tonic, then that tonic should be the tonic of the entire piece (hence monotonality, meaning "only one tonic"). This doesn't mean the piece can't modulate, but that it will (with some exceptions) begin and end in the same key.

This means that the definition can be very broad; we can use cadences, but we don't need to; we can use tertian harmony, but we need not; we can use scales, but we certainly don't have to; we can write in major or minor, or octatonic or hexatonic, or something completely different altogether; and so on. What's important is the role of a single tonic pitch that is hierarchically more important than all of the others. There may be different types of tonality (and this different types of tonal music), but it's still tonality; Mozart is definitely different from Wagner, who is very different from Debussy, but they still wrote tonal music. (Note: some may disagree with this paragraph!)

And here maybe it's helpful to discuss how some have defined different types (or "uses") of tonality. Robert Bailey, when studying Wagner, discusses four types:

  1. Classical tonality, which is that defined by the tonic-dominant polarity. (I return to this at the end.)
  2. Expressive tonality, which is when chords move up and down by second. Some call this "truck-driver tonality," because the chord switches sound like a revving engine.
  3. Associative tonality, where particular tonal cues are used as extra-musical references that might not be related to the current stretch of tonality.
  4. And directional tonality, where a piece begins and ends in different keys. (Contrast this with monotonality, above.)

But even with that knowledge of tonality, there are still disagreements on what is and is not "tonal music." Some, for instance, separate "tonal" music from "modal" music, while others still view modal music as being tonal.

But it may be important to note that two historical theorists, Fétis and Choron, announced "the beginning of tonality" at the appearance of a dominant-seventh chord in a piece by Monteverdi around 1590. Many modern theorists insist on the presence of the dominant in order to define tonality; indeed, they believe that the tonic-dominant polarity is the defining characteristic of tonal music. This mindset largely comes from the work of Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker. His influence on our understanding of "tonality" is so vast that college courses on his theories are often simply called something like "Analyzing Tonal Music."

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    I commend this answer as sounding much less grouchy than my answer~ Apr 26, 2018 at 14:17
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    @topomorto I didn't find any grouch in your answer at all! I really liked your answer, but there were a couple of things I wanted to add. But now I keep thinking of more and more things to add, and my answer is becoming more and more disorganized as I go...
    – Richard
    Apr 26, 2018 at 14:36
  • Something I didn't quite get from the wikipedia article was a sense of whether the term 'tonal' has identifiably evolved from one reasonably-specific meaning to another over time, or if (like 'modal' ?) it has lurched from one confusing meaning to another, or if it has always just been confusing... Apr 26, 2018 at 14:53
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    It depends on who you ask. Some view tonal music as an evolution from modal, but Harold Powers famously says they are on "different epistemological planes" and that it's useless to view a progressive relationship from one into the other.
    – Richard
    Apr 26, 2018 at 14:55
  • Yes, I remember Schenker all too well- he was considered God at the UC Berkeley department of music in the seventies. But I still don't think there's any way of drawing a meaningful line between "tonal" music and anything else. It's a complex continuum, not a yes/no. Apr 26, 2018 at 20:02

As per my own comment on that question - it's not a word that has a very precise meaning! Wikipedia will tell you the same...

At least eight distinct senses of the word "tonality" (and corresponding adjective, "tonal"), some mutually exclusive, have been identified...
(emphasis mine)

Various different ideas that some people seem to associate with 'tonality' are...

  • The idea that there is a central pitch that a piece gravitates around
  • The idea that there is a hierarchy of relationships between other notes in the scale used and that central pitch
  • Use of any scale
  • Use of the diatonic scale
  • Use of triadic harmony
  • use of particular musical devices (e.g. particular cadences and harmonic motions, such as dominant to tonic)
  • User of the major/minor system

and you can probably pick out more meanings from that Wikipedia article.

So what does and does not count as tonal music?

No-one is going to be able to say with any authority, because (for better or worse) there is no central authority who decides what musical words mean, and the population of musicians and musicologists haven't really thrashed out a single useful meaning.

My advice would be - if someone uses the word, be kind and try to infer from context what they mean - but be careful when using it yourself, as it's a word that often adds confusion rather than clarity.

  • Yep. This is a good example of the impossibility of drawing a clean line across a very complicated landscape. Although pretty much everyone would put "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "De Profundis" by Schoenberg into "tonal" and "atonal" categories respectively, it gets a lot messier elsewhere. For instance- is just music (Harry Partch, or my own stuff) ever "tonal"? There simply cannot be any clear place to draw a line. Apr 26, 2018 at 8:53
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    @ScottWallace I wonder if Dekkadeci might add Cauliflower to his list of examples... Apr 26, 2018 at 8:57
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    I was wondering myself if I could consider it tonal or not. Since it always comes back to what sounds like a root chord, I guess it could be considered tonal. But since it only does so because it's dictated by the repetition of a pattern, maybe it should be considered forced tonality. I don't know. Apr 26, 2018 at 9:01
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    @ScottWallace I've heard of forced rhubarb but had to check if there's such a thing as forced cauliflower (there is, apparently...) Apr 26, 2018 at 13:44

Others have mentioned the general ambiguity of the term, so I thought I might offer my response, which is a little less academic and probably somewhat subjective, though informed by my experiences in academia.

Broadly speaking, I think of Tonality and Functionality somewhat interchangeably, which may be wrong in a technical sense that I'm not very familiar with. However, when viewed from the lens of Tonal vs. Atonal, my definition may be less valuable. So I generally consider a piece that is using Functional harmony, ie, Dominant to Tonic as the primary cadential movement, to be Tonal. Other forms of music, such as Modal or Non-Functional, would not be considered Tonal and would go by the names just mentioned.

This belief may be based on my having studied from a book called "Tonal Harmony with an introduction to Twentieth Century Music". The majority of what was covered in this book has to do with Functional Harmony and the distinction in the title about an "introduction to twentieth century music" implies that the remaining topics covered would not be Tonal music. The book covers a decent amount of the Romantic era as well, which starts to stretch tonality a bit, such as with pieces like Voiles by Claude Debussy, which is largely a study of the Whole Tone scale (not to take away from its musical value; Debussy is one of my favorites). This piece would certainly not be considered Atonal, as there is some emphasis on some pitches over others, particularly the pedal tone, but it doesn't conform to any of what is studied in the book up to that point.

I think that when I most often find myself using the term Tonal, it is in opposition to Modal but I also tend to use Functional more frequently, which does seem to have a more agreed upon definition. The distinction I draw from this is that describing the Tonality of a piece generally suggests that the piece is in Major or Minor and using Functional Harmony, where describing the Modality of a piece generally suggests that we could be using any Mode and if that Mode is either Ionian or Aeolian that it is not using Functional Harmony.

I generally prefer to use the term Functional Harmony over Tonal and, to be honest, my comment on the referenced question doesn't really seem to be as agreed upon as I had thought at the time I made it.

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