I try to learn rules of counterpoint. Yesterday I got this nice source of rules. The second rule there states:

The 7th degree must resolve to the tonic, or it can descend stepwise if the preceding note is the tonic.

I want to be sure that I understand it right. Here is my understanding:

Whenever we have the 7th degree (not necessarily in the end of the melody, it can be in the middle), we need to make one step up to move to the 8th degree (tonic). Is it correct? Or it is meant that after 7th degree we need to move 6 steps down to the 1st degree? Or both are allowed?

  • Your intuition is correct! This is why some teachers I've worked with distinguish between scale-degree 1 and scale-degree "8"; the latter shows the clear movement up from 7, whereas the former is often a descent from 2.
    – Richard
    Apr 30, 2019 at 13:24
  • 1
    The body of your question seems to be asking something completely different from the title. Apr 30, 2019 at 15:19
  • @MichaelKay, why? I did not understand the cited rule since I was not sure what exactly mean by "tonic" (only the 1st degrees or also 8th). This was the root of my confusion.
    – Roman
    May 2, 2019 at 10:34

4 Answers 4


I think this is what the rule meant:

Generally, leading note (7th of the scale) always goes upwards to the tonic (1st degree). It is commonly used in melodies, chord harmonies, etc. In a major scale, the interval between leading note & tonic is minor 2nd. So for example, in C major, B should go up to C. This sounds good.

The second part says that 7th can resolve downwards if preceded by the tonic. I think this means that if your tonic is the higher tonic (8th), you can move downwards in a scale pattern like 8-7-6. So in C major, it would be C-B-A.

No, you generally don't jump from the 7th to the 1st degree i.e. B - lower C. This makes an interval of a major 7th, which is huge. The leading note most of the time goes up to the tonic.

Again, exceptions are there to all rules. But this is generally what is followed.

I am not sure if my explanation to the second part of the rule is correct or not, but this is what I think it should be. Hope this helped!

  • 1
    Intro. to 'Mister Sandman' is a nice example of broken 'rules'..!
    – Tim
    Apr 30, 2019 at 16:57

Is one octave above tonic also considered as tonic?

Yes. The concepts and terms involved are pitch class and octave equivalency.

after 7th degree we need to move 6 steps down to the 1st degree?

No, it should move up. As you point out you could think of notating this with ^7 to ^8. Or you could amend the rule...

The 7th degree must resolve [by an ascending step] to the tonic.

The same can said about the resolution of ^4 to ^3. It should be a step-wise descent, rather than an ascending seventh.

or it can descend stepwise if the preceding note is the tonic.

This is really a separate concept. It just means that in a descending scale passage ^7 isn't required to reverse direction and resolve to the tonic. The passage can descend through ^7 and keep going down.

This is a good example of how musical context is what really determines how things progress not rules. ^7 resolving up to the tonic assumes a particular context. A basic context of tonic to dominant harmony. But when the context is different things work differently. If ^7 is part of a decorative motion, or if the passage is sequential, or if the key is changing, then the handling of the music changes. Just keep that in mind. A rule assumes a particular context.


Generally yes, when you have the leading tone of a scale(7th degree), you need to resolve it stepwise to the tonic.

But there are some exceptions to this rule.

  • The leading tone can (and quite often is) used as a passing tone from the tonic to the 6th degree (for instance C B A ) // this is what your example is trying to say. Take notice though, that if the 7th degree is on an accented beat, it strongly wants to be resolved to the tonic.

  • If the leading tone isn't on the high voice (soprano), it can be resolved a third down (for instance B to G).


Quick answer to the actual question: Yes, we can (and will) go up to the 'top tonic'.

You're looking at a compendium of rules, applicable to various styles from strict 'species' counterpoint onwards. You will find it useful to examine each one and see what its purpose is. The pull of a leading note towards a tonic is axiomatic. But of course we must also be allowed to write a scale descending from the tonic. In SATB writing, at a final cadence it can be difficult to arrange both a rising leading note AND a fully-voiced final tonic chord, so we have the 'falling leading note' exception.

Some of the other rules are less intuitive, particularly to modern ears. I was transcribing some Everly Brothers numbers recently, and was surprised to find how often their perfectly satisfactory and full-sounding 2-part vocal harmonies moved in parallel 5ths!

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