Let me explain the context of this question: my 12 year old niece is learning to play the piano and has to study musical theory; she recently encountered the notion of tonality and can't manage to find this topic interesting; the reason she gives is that knowing about tonality can only be useful to those who compose musical pieces, while for those who play all the necessary informations are given on the music sheet.

I suppose that the concept of tonality has more than a purely theoretical interest, unless it would not be taught in music courses.

But I could not give her a better argument than : " the notion must be important, for enlightened music amateurs commonly give the tonality of a musical piece when they refer to this piece".

Hence my question : for which reasons is it important for those who practice music to know about tonality? in which way ignoring this notion could prevent or slow down one's progress in music practice?

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    The word 'tonality' has many different meanings in different contexts. Which 'tonality' do you mean? Dec 25, 2019 at 18:29
  • And... What other things is she being taught to do, other than play from a score? Dec 25, 2019 at 18:41
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    Your niece should be glad and grateful that she has got a piano teacher who shows her the musical background. She will take lot of profit when playing with other instrumentalists or singers, when learning a new piece or playing in performance or accompanying songs by ear. Dec 26, 2019 at 6:55
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    @topoReinstateMonica.- By tonality I meant , for example "B flat minor". I meant the kind of expression added to the name of a musical peice : " Mozart's piano sonata B flat major" for instance.
    – user60848
    Dec 26, 2019 at 10:50
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    The way most people learn about tonality at the start is to learn scales. What level is she at - beginner? Has she been taught scales? Once you know scales, knowing the names of keys isn't really much of a "topic" - just a simple bit of terminology. Dec 26, 2019 at 11:44

4 Answers 4


I could tell you many reasons why the concept of tonality and theory is important and helpful for musicians and especially for pianists.

It is actually possible to push down the keys following the notes of a sheet without having an idea of tonality, but this is not the purpose of a musician.

The question - not only in music - is: do you want to know what you are doing and understand what you do or do you just want to follow blind the rules and orders of others like a slave?

Tonality and the key are the most important basic concepts of the theory of traditional western classic and also pop music. Theory is nothing else than reflection about practice.

  1. If you understand the scales, keys, chords and chord progressions you will have a great advantage in reading and playing music, and playing by heart, memorizing a piece and also when performing or for improvisation.
  2. Pianists seldom play just for them selves, they play with others, accompanying a singer or instrumentalist. It will be necessary to be able to transpose a song or an accompaniment in a different key.
  3. Transposing and reduction of harmony are my daily bread when learning a new piece. Knowledge of keys, chords, functions and understanding the tonality are prerequisites to do so.

Probably you‘ve heard someone saying: this child is very gifted, he is playing very musically: Tonality is just another aspect for saying „he plays with feeling“ ...

Edit: When I reread this part of your question

Aber ich könnte ihr kein besseres Argument geben als: "Der Begriff muss wichtig sein, denn erleuchtete Musikamateure geben gewöhnlich die Tonalität eines Musikstücks an, wenn sie sich auf dieses Stück beziehen."

I have to assume that the point is just to learn and understand in which key a piece is written, as most titles contain the key tonality. So the piano teacher asks the students that they have to know the key assignments when he speaks about tonality. Knowing the sharps and flats, their function and relationship to the tonality, understanding their role when playing chords or scale passages will help a beginner to avoid mistakes when reading sheetmusic, failures you will hear when she is playing. Next step will be the circle of fifths!


I think this question is terribly opinion-based. At least my answer is.

First of all, it might be very difficult to motivate a 12-year old! She might be opposing the idea just because she wants to oppose things and/or people. Maybe if she saw someone that she looks up to, someone who fluently uses the concepts of tonality to do something that's cool and ossom, she might get interested. Music theory is not very cool! No street credibility is on offer on those lessons. No immediate gratification either - unless you like to tinker with meaningless puzzles.

How do you influence and motivate people? Bribery, extortion, ... and what have you. ;) But that sort of extrinsic motivation isn't very good. I've heard that intrinsic motivation is the most effective kind: challenge, excitement, enjoyment, fun, fascination. And if the person already has a potential for intrinsic motivation, adding extrinsic motivation might actually counteract the positive things! If she happened to enjoy music theory, if you say that she must do it to be a good girl or otherwise there's a punishment or something, or if there's a reward which makes it more like a chore, chances are that she stops enjoying it! But there's one more type, provocation, which might be able to turn into intrinsic motivation ... I'm not sure. Ask a psychologist or something. :)

Make it enjoyable

IMO, the most effective ways to get someone to start learning is to: (1) make it feel possible by providing them simple, doable examples that they succeed in, (2) show a good example person to look up to, and (3) to offer a time, place and means to practice the thing and excel in it.

How do you do this with music theory, if it's taught theory-first? I have no idea! IMO it has to be practice first. The things, in this case concepts of tonality, have to have an immediate practical use that feels good. And that is: playing songs by ear! (And then, making modifications to them by ear - though I'm not sure if everyone enjoys that sort of messing around with songs which are almost sacred things. Many people have a weird preconception that songs should be played correctly, which is, exactly like it's on the famous recording everyone knows.)

For example, why I learned tonality as a kid - I loved to play songs by ear, as chords and melody. It felt much better than listening to radio or something. A good song was even better if I could play it myself. First it was 3-4 chord songs in simple keys like C/Am, F/Dm and G/Em. Then it got more and more complicated and I expanded to all keys one by one. Add borrowed chords, modulations, modes, altered chords, ambiguous harmony like dim7 chords, tritone substitutions ... for most of that stuff I didn't even know the proper names. Like "dorian mode" - it felt weird that there was such a pompous fancy name for such a simple thing. There was always some song that had a trick I didn't know yet, so there was (and is) no maximum level to achieve. I also had a place and practical situations to actually perform, in school, in church, at home, family get-togethers ... accompanying songs and playing small solos. Every time I played anything, I imagined an audience or band or other "real" situation together with other people. I knew it was pop and not fancy classical music, but I didn't care, it all just somehow felt like the right and proper thing to do. And I think it hasn't changed, I think nobody opposes singing songs?

Provocation (probably a bad idea)

This is probably a bad idea, but just to explain the idea through a "warning example":

If you don't understand tonality at all, what kind of a musician are you? A robot that cannot play even a single note without someone else writing the note for you. In my very subjective opinion, being mentally tied and handicapped like that is simply pathetic. An "artist" who cannot express herself. Ok, if your thing is to spend your musical life repeating what is written for you and do exactly as you're told, then ... "fine". Though I don't think that's really fine at all. Wouldn't it be kind of nice to even know a little bit of how the things work? Isn't there something wrong, if you don't know what you're doing, if you don't understand the sentences you're being told to repeat?

Maybe that's too negative. It probably won't help saying things like that, unless you can provide a readily available way to try something better. Probably not even then. You don't have to motivate a dog to give up the bone he's chewing, if you give him a steak instead. (Imaginary example, I know nothing about dogs)

Final Words

Remember that trying to add extrinsic motivation may have the exact opposite effect of what it tries to achieve. If the student isn't shown, if she doesn't experience first-hand, in practice, how the concepts of tonality are used to achieve something "cool", in a way that she can replicate, then there's not much you can do. (And I also think that if the concepts are taught top-down, theory-first, to people who don't practice playing songs by ear, then it's taught wrong.)

  • I think provocation might be harmful, but the connection between music theory and expression / self-improvement is a good point to make.
    – awe lotta
    Dec 25, 2019 at 19:26
  • I object to your statement that "If you don't understand tonality at all, what kind of a musician are you? A robot that cannot play even a single note without someone else writing the note for you." You can play entire pieces by ear without knowing whether any of the pieces are atonal or have keys. I personally haven't figured out all the key signatures of some of the pieces I want to transcribe myself (mainly ones with fleeting key changes).
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 25, 2019 at 19:45
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica - I understand tonality, and my understanding of a tonal piece is that it has a focal note and a key of some sort (I personally put modal pieces in keys). But I've also listened to and sung (or attempted to sing) enough atonal music that I strongly believe that people can simply match what they play to what they hear in their head and therefore play music by ear without ever figuring out whether the music they play is tonal.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 25, 2019 at 20:50
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica - Yes, that's the belief I've developed based on my experience singing atonal music without sheet music. I still heavily depend on the recording in my head to sing atonal music, as I pitch-match my singing to the recording as closely as possible (including tempo), and I can only transpose those pieces extremely slowly - or else very inaccurately - on the fly. I do not believe I am the only person to learn music by ear this way. (I can figure out the key of an excerpt of music on first listen, so I can skip pure pitch-matching for them.)
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 26, 2019 at 5:01
  • @Dekkadeci I deleted my comments/questions about the atonal stuff, I can't really see the relevance, because atonal music feels like an edge case in the context of this question. But thanks for the insight, I had never thought about the possibility that a person could at least in theory approach music like that. Dec 26, 2019 at 11:26

As noted by other answers and comments, "tonality" can have a lot of meanings. But I assume in the context of the question that what we're getting at is something more like "musical structure." Why is it important to know about musical structure?

And the best answer I can give to someone who is a relative beginner in music is to compare it to something else that might be more familiar.

For example, consider reading a poem. To make the analogy a bit better, consider that you are learning to read poems aloud, to perform them (as you might perform a piece on a piano).

But suppose that you didn't know what any of the words meant. Imagine it was a poem in another language, and you were trying to read it aloud in a convincing fashion. It would be quite difficult, no? But it could be done perhaps by teaching the phonetics of the language, so all you understood were the raw sounds and were able to transmit those letters on the page into sound. But you made no connections between those letters, no sense out of the words that connected them.

There would be a lot that you would miss. It would be more difficult to speak expressively if you didn't know the meaning of the words. It would be more difficult to see patterns in one poem and how they might connect to other poems. You might feel the rhythm and sense something about the rhyme scheme, but anything deeper would be a mystery. Why is there a comma there instead of a period? Why does this poem use a lot of short words, compared to average -- is it expressing something with those quick monosyllabic word choices? Why does this other poem seem to have lots of long words. fewer pauses, and long meandering stanzas? Why does this sort of word keep showing up, except with variations in its form (but since you know nothing about meaning or even grammar, it's unclear what's going on)? And how does one know which words are more important, which words might be surprising or confusing? How would your reading change if you understood these elements of meaning?

I truly think looking at a piece of music with no understanding of the underlying theory is similar to this idea of reading a poem without comprehending the words. Instrumental music may not have a particular meaning (as a poem does), but it has a structure. Tonal music is often organized into motives and gestures, which are organized into phrases, which get organized into "sentences" and "periods," which form larger sections. There's a logic and reason behind how many of these elements relate to each other, why they come in the order that they do, when they create a "surprise" by doing something against expectations, etc.

One can pick up on many musical patterns intuitively with a lot of experience, but an understanding of tonal structure can be a shortcut to seeing many of these patterns.

I'll just conclude with a reaction to one particular quote from the question:

the reason she gives is that knowing about tonality can only be useful to those who compose musical pieces, while for those who play all the necessary informations are given on the music sheet.

Again, I think saying the "necessary information" is all on the music sheet is like saying, "I can sound out the words of the poem, so therefore I can read it." Music comes with a broader set of expressive marks than poetry does, so there is a lot more information to help you perform the music, even if you don't understand what it's doing or why it's doing it. Still, it's harder to be a strong performer if you don't get the meaning of the music, which is aided by understanding various elements of its structure.

Because while music has expressive marks, there's also a lot of implicit understanding for things that are obvious in, say, a poem. For example, a poem tells you where the end of a thought is or where a question occurs through use of punctuation. But there's often no equivalent signal in musical notation about the end of a musical thought (phrase) or the signal of an incomplete musical thought (half cadence). To recognize those basic elements, equivalent to the punctuation of a poem, one needs to have some recognition of things like chords and tonality.

But I'd also react strongly against the first part of that quoted statement: all good piano students should learn to make their own music at some point. Improvisation, for most of history of keyboard instruments, was a common skill. One doesn't have to be a composer to appreciate how to put music together on a basic level. Furthermore, I'd make the comparison here to learning a foreign language too. Some people try to learn a language only by reading it -- by staring at the words on the page and translating what others have done. But it's widely recognized in language pedagogy that one learns best by creating and imitating, by trying to create your own sentences and talking to other people. It's a lot harder (if not impossible) to become fluent by merely reading what other people have created. Instead, you learn a lot faster and come to a much greater understanding of a language by trying to do it yourself.

The goal, however, is not to become a poet or an orator in the foreign language. It's just to casually understand it and be able to make up your own utterances that make sense. Similarly, the goal in music study isn't to become a composer (for most people), but being able to understand what it's doing at a glance and to be able to make up your own casual improvisations is an incredibly useful exercise for learning.


You could use a foreign language metaphor.

A person can phonetically read some words in a foreign language, but have no idea the meaning of what they are saying. Importantly, accent and articulation can be handled poorly when "reading" a language you don't understand.

Tonality is like the grammar and vocabulary in the language of music. To understand tonality is to understand the musical meaning of the chords and scales in a piece of music. Understanding tonality let's you play with musical understanding.

On the practical side understanding tonality will aid with pattern recognition and understanding musical structure which aid memorization. Basically you can "chunk" parts of music into memory along tonal lines.

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