There are many words which means "center tone of a song", but each word seems to have its own limitation of usage.

  • Tonal Center
  • Key Center

I heard (and was told) that these are the terms for tonal music and it's not appropriate to use them in other realm of music.

For modal music I often see these words:

  • Modal Tonic
  • Final (Finalis)

But then, what about other kind of music?

(1) A song not clearly belonging to either "Tonal" or "Modal"

A wholetone scale song, for example, can have a "center" by emphasizing one of the scale notes. But it's controversial whether this kind of songs belong to tonal or modal.

Or recent EDM has some crazy wobble bass solo with pitch bend, yet there's a "center" where you can feel at home.
Wobble basses are played often in Phrygian mode, but again it's hard to judge if I should call it "modal music".

(2) Traditional Ethnic Music

Although ethnic musics often don't fit to western major/minor key theory, they still have their own harmony system and usually have "center" somewhere.

I'm not at all trying to discuss categorizing them into "Tonal" or "Modal" (It'll make no one happy).

I just wonder if there is not a common, global, inclusive term which simply stands for "center tone of the song" regardless of the style of music, which you can use without worrying about these fruitless categorization matter.

I think the best general word is "Tonic", but some even say that tonic also is a word for tonal music.
Do I have no choice but to use lengthy expressions like "center tone of the song" or "a tone where you can feel at home, feel that the phrase ends"?

  • 2
    If you said "tonic" or "tonal center" in any of the contexts you've described, I would immediately understand what you were talking about, and it wouldn't sound strange to me. Words mean what we agree they mean. So it's not like using "tonic" outside the context of a strict major key will cause your speech to crash with a syntax error!
    – Kevin
    Sep 25, 2019 at 17:42

4 Answers 4


In my answers here I tend to use home note if I want to avoid any implications as to what kind of music I'm talking about. It sounds a bit childish and not very technical, but perhaps that is why it doesn't seem to have any unwanted implications about the type of music.

I don't personally assume much about the type of music if I read 'tonic' or 'tonal centre' - if it does imply that the music is 'tonal', what that in turn means can be rather uncertain anyway...

  • 1
    We used this in early band many many years ago. My dad accidentally taught it to me when he taught me rock music "You gotta come back to the ones, do all the fancy solo crap you want but when the drummer's gonna crash that cymbal you better be on your one."
    – corsiKa
    Sep 25, 2019 at 19:36

I've heard "tonal center". I know you said you've heard that that's only for tonal music, but I'd argue that it's fine to say a modal piece has a tonal center. Tonic is a term that I hear more often in tonal music.

As long as there is a discernable center, I think it's perfectly acceptable to say "tonal center", even when the piece has more of a mode-based thing going on. Modes, after all, still have well-defined tonalities, and even though they lack functional harmony (for the most part), they still have a center, which means to me that "tonal center" applies.


I’ve always heard it referred to as the tonic. A lot of the (traditional-based) music I play is centred on drones and/or modes, and tonic is the easiest way of expressing the ‘note that the melody centres around’.


As far as a "common, global, inclusive term for something as sensory and subjective as "the center tone of a song", I think the question is too vague as presented. Most questions appealing to esthetic judgment cannot be answered in any absolute sense.

If rephrased more operationally, it might ask, "What tone or frequency would be the least dissonent overlaid continuously during a song?",

then the answer, at least in Western music, would be the root or tonic of the song's key -- leaving only ambiguity about which octave of the root note sounds least objectionable, and at what volume.


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