I made a simple melody in FL studio that was in C Major. The melody consisted of two phrases both of which started on D. The only difference between the two is the second phrase ended on C (the tonic of C major). The only problem is it didn’t feel resolved ending on the tonic like I thought it would. When I changed the last note of the tonic to a D it sounded resolved even though D is not the tonic of C Major. I’m assuming it has something to do with the context in which I’m using it. For reference, I didn’t use C at all until I tried to resolve the second phrase and the other notes used were D,F,G,A and E. Any insight into why it didn’t sound resolved even though I used the tonic? Is there a fundamental concept I’m missing here?

  • 1
    If that D was an anacrucis, it would make a big difference. We need to see the whole piece to be able to help here. – Tim Mar 22 '20 at 19:49
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    Why do you say it's in C major? If you've only used C-D-F-G-A, and if there's no accompaniment using notes other than those five, then you've defined a pentatonic scale, but not a key. The notes you've used ARE used in C major, but they're also used in D minor, F major and other keys. Imagine writing a very boring tune that only uses G and F. No key is defined by just those notes. If you end it F G Ab Eb C Ab we can say it's in Ab. End it G F E C B C it's in C. – Old Brixtonian Mar 22 '20 at 20:35
  • Ok, interesting... so what makes a melody favor one scale over another, even if it contains notes that are in multiple scales? It seems my melody favored a "D" scale considering it felt resolved ending on D and also began on D... – YoungCapone Mar 22 '20 at 20:41
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    (Continued) BUT only just. We need a certain amount of information before we can say what key something's in. The notes of an F major triad - F, A, C - are present in your piece, but not the notes of a C major one. And the most important note in defining a key - its leading note- is also absent. Western art music is based on keys and 7-note scales. Use 5-note scales and the concept of 'key' flies out of the window. You don't have to write in a key, of course, and there's nothing wrong with using pentatonic scales: they're just a bit limited. Like modes. [Ducks!] – Old Brixtonian Mar 22 '20 at 20:56
  • Sorry: slow typing! – Old Brixtonian Mar 22 '20 at 20:57

Here's what we know about your melodies:

  • uses C Major scale
  • uses D, E, F, G, A
  • starts on D
  • "didn't feel resolved ending on C ... [on] a D it sounded resolved"

Your melodies are either in D Dorian or D Aeolian (minor), not C Major.

D dorian is the second mode of C Major so it's understandable that you have confused them with one another. Likewise, they share the same chords. Popular examples of Dorian are the traditional songs "Greensleeves" and "Scarborough Fair."

Harmonizing with C, F, and G chords (the primary I, IV, and V in C Major) could still be D Dorian: F is the relative Major of Dm; G is now the IV; and C is now the bVII (not primary, but very common in Dorian songs).

Obviously without seeing or hearing your song this is an educated guess, but I feel confident given the clues.


You're mixing up a key signature with a key or tonic of a mode.

A key signature of no sharps and flats is C major...

...or A minor...

...or D Dorian, or E Phrygian, etc. etc.

Basically, all tones except the B could be a possible tonic.

In classical music harmony, specially cadences, define the tonic. Other means, mostly rhythmic, can define the tonic. Certain melodic outlines can define a tonic too, but I think of them as implying harmony.

The tonic is the point of greatest stability in a tonality. It's "home." The starting tone of a phrase is not nearly as important and the ending tone of a phrase for defining a tonic. This makes sense as normal endings come to rest at a point of stability.

The three tonal degrees of all keys and practical modes (except Lydian) are separated by perfect fifths where the middle degree is the tonic and the fifth above is the dominant and the fifth below is the subdominant (except in Lydian.) Any melody that outlines in some way these degrees will strongly imply a tonic.


Starts on D... doesn't tell us much about the tonic.

Melody uses - perhaps outlines - tones D,F,G,A and E.

Ending on C doesn't produce a satisfying resolution/tonic, but ending on D does sound like resolution/tonic.

The list of all tones is C D E F G A. Not a pentatonic scale so we won't talk about that. Possible tonal degrees...

C G D ...there is no B for a tonic G chord, somewhat weak possibility

F C G ...there is no B for a leading tone, weak possibility

D A E ...the B in this case would be the supertonic which is important in melodic cadential patterns like ^3 ^2 ^1 (MI RE DO.)

G D A ...this would provide three tonal degrees and melodic patterns like ^3 ^2 ^1 or ^1 ^7 ^1.

Without actually seeing your melody, just going by the list of tones and what you said about C and D re. the tonic, D as tonic makes sense because there are three tonal degrees and the melodic means to form cadential patterns and outline a tonic triad.

With a D tonic and a C natural below it instead of C# the feel will be modal. Because the sixth degree is absent you can't definitively say whether the mode is D Dorian or D Aeolian. But that isn't a problem. You can shift around to different modes without destabilizing the tonic.

  • Basically, all tones except the B could be a possible tonic. ... what about B locrian? – mkorman Mar 24 '20 at 15:29
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    I said "practical" modes. Locrian isn't one of the traditional modes. It's tonic chord is diminished. Basically you hear people talk of Locrian mode for playing over a diminished chord or music evoking an exotic (read: non-functional) feel. – Michael Curtis Mar 24 '20 at 17:02

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