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If im playing a c major scale ( c d e f g a b c) but not starting on c and starting instead on the low e string (bass) (e f g a b c d e) is the first e called the tonic of the scale or in this case is there a name for the starting note at all?

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Using C D E F G A B C in that order constitutes the C major scale. Here, C is the root, or home note.

Cycling through the same notes, but starting on a different one from C will produce what's known as a mode. E F G A B C D E. The one using E as its root is known as E Phrygian, or sometimes (confusingly) the Phrygian of C. By playing around with these notes, but using E as the home note, a minor, maybe Spanish feel is given to the melody, in comparison to the C major feel when the same notes centre around the root C.

Tonic is reserved for the first degree or note of the major and minor key. Thus the tonic of C major or C minor is C.

EDIT: After a bit more homework, I found that the 'tonic' of a mode can be described as the final.

  • Doesn't really answer the question. Is the first note of a scale or mode always called the "tonic", or is this reserved for the major scale? – ggcg Sep 4 '18 at 23:48
  • @ggcg - resolved? – Tim Sep 5 '18 at 11:02
  • Thanks. That implies that E in E phrygian is not the tonic of that mode, which is consistent with how I was taught (but things change). – ggcg Sep 5 '18 at 11:41
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    @ggcg -- if E phrygian was being used in the key of E minor, E would be the tonic (of the key). – David Bowling Sep 5 '18 at 12:45
  • That is not what's being asked. Playing C maj starting from E is not the same thing as playing E phygian in the key of Emin. – ggcg Sep 5 '18 at 12:52
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There's a difference between "starting" the song on a particular note and the tonic of the song.

The major scale is composed of the following tones between notes:

  • Tonic
  • Whole tone (major 2nd)
  • Whole tone (major 3rd)
  • Half tone (perfect 4th)
  • Whole tone (perfect 5th)
  • Whole tone (major 6th)
  • Whole tone (major 7th). From here it's a half tone more to get back to the tonic note

If we place this progression with tonic on C and E, look which notes are the result:

Step    Distance against previous note  Relationship to Tonic   Example on C    Example on E
1       -                               Tonic                   C               E
2       Whole tone                      Major 2nd               D               F#
3       Whole tone                      Major 3rd               E               G#
4       Half tone                       Perfect 4th             F               A
5       Whole tone                      Perfect 5th             G               B
6       Whole tone                      Major 6th               A               C#
7       Whole tone                      Major 7th               B               D#
(8)     Half tone                       Tonic (octave higher)   C               E

There are different notes for the major scale when placed on key note (tonic) C and E. The scale you mentioned for E is actually a mode of the major scale called Phrygian, which has these properties:

Step    Distance against previous note  Relationship to Tonic   Example on C    Example on E
1       -                               Tonic                   C               E
2       Half tone                       Minor 2nd               Db              F
3       Whole tone                      Minor 3rd               Eb              G
4       Whole tone                      Perfect 4th             F               A
5       Whole tone                      Perfect 5th             G               B
6       Half tone                       Minor 6th               Ab              C
7       Whole tone                      Minor 7th               Bb              D
(8)     Whole tone                      Tonic (octave higher)   C               E

If you note, this progression on E has the same notes that C on major, but the scale is actually different as it has different steps and intervals. All intervals from the major scale (except 4th and 5th) are major while all intervals on phrygian scale (except 4th and 5th) are minor. This makes both scales completely different and thus the resulting sound experience changes dramatically.

So, if a song has these notes: C D E F G A B, which scale are we playing? Is it C major or E phrygian (or other modes like A minor, or B locrian?). This is what I meant with the first question.

The key of a song is not the first note that is played, or root position of the scale we are playing on the guitar, it's the note that when played the sensation the listener gets is a rest, like feeling back at home. This is very intertwined with the chords progressions and how they build tension (chords that are not tonic) and release (chords that are tonic) and it might get some time to get used to it, but it gets a lot easier with practice.

This means that it can be both, depending on which note the key is. If it's on C then it will be C major, if it's on E then it will be E phrygian, if it's on D it will be D dorian, etc (for each mode).

  • There are probably more examples of songs that do 'start' on the tonic than any other note, not including anacruces. – Tim Sep 4 '18 at 8:53
  • Convention is to say "whole tone" rather than "full tone" – Brian THOMAS Sep 4 '18 at 11:45
  • @BrianTHOMAS thanks for the correction, edited. – EzLo Sep 4 '18 at 13:07

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