What makes a note the tonal center of a scale other than forcing the listener to come from and go back to the selected note as the center? Or is that what makes that note the tonal center?

Also at what point can you say for sure that the tonal center has changed? I understand there are probably plenty of gray areas, but this is me trying to get a better grip on this concept.

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    Are you asking about a particular style, like either classical or pop? – Michael Curtis Mar 23 at 17:15

Let me take a controversial stance: the tonic is always subjective.

There is no such thing as one objective tonic at any particular point in a compostition. I'm not arguing that the idea of a tonic is useless, though, I'm just saying that the best conceptual understanding of a tonic (or tonal center, or key center, or a bunch of other phrases that refer to the same central measure of a piece) must recognise that this center is based on perception and is subjective and personal.

A tonal center is like a reference point in physics: yes, you could calculate the motion of that baseball with respect to the wave going around the bleachers, but you'll find it much more useful to analyse the motion of that baseball relative to home plate. In the same vein, a key is a perspective from which analysis can be constructed. Take "Fly Me to the Moon", for example. You could say that the key is C major, or you could say that the key is A minor. Both of these lenses allow one to easily observe patterns present in the song and interpret them. However, it is also possible to analyse the song as being in the B Locrian mode, though of course it is not useful to analyse the song from that point of view. You could even analyse it from the perspective of D major, where of course the first note wouldn't be in the diatonic key and the first chord would be v. Obviously, any theorist worth their salt would throw that conclusion out the window immediately, but that's what good analysis requires: isolating the useful frameworks of C major and A minor, and discarding useless approaches like B Locrian and D major.

It might not even be useful to give a piece a single label with respect to a key: the key can change, as anyone who's learned about modulation knows. A piece can even have multiple "valid" interpretations: I know I've written music before where I meant for it to sound like it was in one key, but listeners identified a different key as the tonal center. The classic example of this is when someone wants to write some music in the Locrian mode as a theory exercise, but it ends up sounding like Phrygian or one of the other modes. Plus, music doesn't have to be diatonic; composers have been blurring the lines with regard to the key of a piece for centuries: modal interchange, secondary dominants, chromatic planing, and plenty of other techniques to get off of the white keys and play with the listener's perception of the key. And once you get to polytonalism and twelve-tone serialism, any opposition to my point really starts to fall flat on its face.

This is not just a theoretical semantics debate: there are numerous well-known examples of music that has seen analyses with varying tonics. For some well-known extreme examples, "Giant Steps" - not just one "objective tonic" (not even close). "4:33" - I'd love to hear your opinions on the tonic of that piece. Even "Sweet Home Alabama" has been making the rounds in the media as an ambiguous case.

"So if the tonic is always subjective, then how am I supposed to analyze music?"

, you ask. Well, the tonic is what you personally hear as the note around which everything falls into place, usually best determined by the melody. One good way to check is to see what notes are in the song and then see what key would have those diatonic pitches. Be very careful doing this, though - this method quickly falls apart with music that gets out of diatonic harmony (which probably happens more often than you'd expect). If you hear a change in that basic set of notes at some point in the song, that's a clue that the song may have changed its tonal center. It's also often useful to study cadences and their patterns of resolution, but again, this can be and is often subverted. Ultimately, trust in your own ears first, then check to see whether other clues confirm this hypothesis. Experienced musicians will do this process in their head from multiple angles at once ("hmm, the notes are blah blah and blah, the melody sounds to me like blah, and this makes blah blah type of cadence - pretty clearly in F♯ minor!").

"I think I'm doing this right, but sometimes I get the key 'wrong'. How do I know I'm using the right process to figure out the key?"

If you can do this process correctly, you should have no trouble analyzing the blues. Often, a struggle to determine the key of a blues song is an indicator that someone is using the wrong methods to arrive at their analysis of the key of a piece.

"Wait a minute, how can there be a 'wrong' way to figure out the key? Didn't you just spend a whole paragraph explaining that the key is subjective?"

Okay, technically there's no such thing as the wrong method, in the same way that analysis can't really be "wrong" either. But that doesn't mean that there can't be flawed logic involved. When people talk about "the wrong key", that's a shorthand for the implicit understanding that the key identified by that analysis is useless in terms of understanding the music. In the same way, the "wrong" way to analyze the key of a piece is "wrong" because it often leads to useless ("invalid") conclusions, and is not very efficient for arriving at useful analyses.

If you want to get better at doing this identification, the best and fastest way to improve is to listen to a lot of music (like, a LOT - this comes with experience) and just take a second to try and determine the key. If you can, get another musician to verify what they hear as the tonic - the internet can and often does lead to counterproductive interpretations, because computers are bad at subjective tasks like this one. Plus, the humans posting on the internet are not all experts (hopefully, you trust that I know what I'm talking about, but there are plenty of people willing to post stuff online that don't have a solid grasp on what they're talking about).

Occasionally, you may stumble upon a piece that you just can't seem to wrap your head around - even if you're a seasoned veteran theorist. Those are the cases where it can be best to reject the idea of a key entirely, or use two keys to explain the patterns you hear, or identify a change in the key, and just accept that it's possible to interpret something multiple ways, and that there isn't always just one correct answer.

One final (hopefully) addendum, just as a nod to some other sentiments that I may have initially done a poor job of explaining:

My answer above is more of an advanced conceptual-level approach to harmonic understanding. It works very well for the intermediate-to-expert theorist, but it can be a bit involved for a novice.

Ultimately, your goal in developing the skill of identifying the tonic should be to be so quick and accurate that for most songs it will feel objective. User Albrecht Hügli's answer is a great starting point towards developing this skill from a novice standpoint. You should be able to say to yourself most of the time, "Yep, the song's obviously in D minor" without a doubt in your mind. You of course would know conceptually that it's a shorthand for knowing that D minor is by far the most convenient choice of a key for conventional harmonic analysis. When you practice, especially as a beginner, there should most of the time be one best answer - if there's more than one, you're picking the wrong examples to practice with.

To sum it all up:

Learn to figure out the key of simpler (one clear best key) musical examples efficiently. Once you have that skill in the bag, then in order to tackle more advanced harmony, you must grasp that a tonal center is a perspective from which anaysis makes sense, and learn to trust your ear.

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    Great! :D About feeling the tonal center: IMO you can't really learn that by listening only, you have to interact with the music. Practice by accompanying melodies with different chords by ear. I can, at will, imagine in my mind without actually playing, major or minor-key i.e. tonal center perspectives to "Fly me to the moon" and that skill comes from accompanying by ear. Melody starting from C, chords e.g. C - F - G - C ... or Am - Dm - Em - Am - ... It's subjective, and every listener forms a perspective. Which can of course be strongly suggested and guided with an arrangement! – piiperi Reinstate Monica Mar 24 at 7:32
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    On the subjectivity of the tonic: music.stackexchange.com/questions/17225/… – Michael Jordan Mar 24 at 16:26
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    @Dom I guess the OP will have to get back to us on whether his use of the word 'tonic' implied that the question should only relate to certain types of music. I'm used to people (even here) using the term more casually. Do you agree that not all music with a 'home note' satisfies every other criterion in every other definition of 'tonal'? – topo Reinstate Monica Mar 24 at 16:41
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    @Dom what "the basics" are isn't always clear in many subjects, and certainly not in music. You don't have to be thinking in terms of post-tonal analysis to try on the idea that what the tonic is, ultimately, is a feeling. One student might well see that as muddying the waters; another might see it as the fundamental point around which to build all other knowledge on the subject; yet another might see it as something to bear in mind whilst still being perfectly happy to start with conventional analysis techniques. – topo Reinstate Monica Mar 24 at 21:54
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    @Dom the 'stability' isn't literal - nothing's going to actually crash onto the floor if we don't resolve quickly enough. It's a feeling of stability. Like many feelings, it has psychological and cultural foundations that mean that many people may share the same subjective feelings (or feel that they do), and even come up with a common language to describe those (apparently) shared feelings. To me, that's still squarely in the land of subjectivity, but that's just a question of how the word 'subjective' is defined... yet another thing about which people may well disagree, I guess! – topo Reinstate Monica Mar 24 at 22:27
  1. There are some rare tunes that are only built on notes of the triad of the tonic like a canon:

1111 333- 5555 888- 5588 558- 5533 551- Here we have an absolut clear situation: No cadence but only tonic ... or this fantastic march of the Swiss Army ;)

  1. There are many songs just commuting between tonic and dominant:

"Hey ho, Skip to my Lou", "Frère Jacques", "Sur le pont d'Avignon", and many other folk melodies and baby songs: The final chord is always the tonic, and the song begins almost always with the tonic.

3a) The most important factor of the tonic is the appearance of a cadence:

V-I is an authentic cadence, but if we have only 2 chords without context we don't know whether this is V/V or I-IV (=V/IV). In minor V-i could also be the dominant of any other minor degree. So - as long we don't know whether we have an perfect authentic cadence or an imperfect cadence the tonic is not defined. As Tim says in his comment, if we have only 2 chords and one has a minor 7th in a V-I relation it will be a dominant 7 relation in our western music and folk songs and the tonic is defined. But I also think of some "bluesy" songs with only 2 chords: I7 - IV like we have in some spirituals (better I7-IV7 or also I-ii)

3b) As soon we have the 3 functions I-IV-V-I (or I ii V7 I) we have a tonal center: this can be in any place of 3 neighbor chords in the circle of fifths: If 3 neighbor keys (degrees) are "cadencing" that the progression ends on the middle key of the 3 degrees we have a perfect authentic cadence and a new tonic center.


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    If there are only two chords in a song, and one includes the b7, making it a dominant seventh chord, would that point to the tonic better? Agree about the cadence, it's probably the most telling factor. – Tim Mar 23 at 9:31
  • I know what you mean! I've edited point 3 => 3a and 3b. The context will decide it: In such songs we have normally the final chord that defines the tonic. – Albrecht Hügli Mar 23 at 11:13
  • @Tim Agreed. But what about if there are three chords and they all include the b7? I'm looking at you, 12 bar blues. No-one would say that the tonic of a blues in C is Bb! – Adam Chalcraft Mar 24 at 2:51
  • @AdamChalcraft - good point, and my idea would be to take all three chords and check them with the circle of 4/5s. The central one will be the key/tonic. Blues is/are notorious for breaking the 'rules'. – Tim Mar 24 at 7:31
  • I'll give this a +1 for covering the basic levels of harmony with a clear method, which is something I kind of neglected in my answer. – user45266 Mar 24 at 19:00

The best way to tell if the tonic has changed is to see if what Schoenberg calls "neutralization" over an extended period of time. Neutralization occurs when a chromatic form of a note is used instead of the original version. For example, in effecting a move from C major to G major, the F# should emphasized to show that we're no longer in C. One method is to play the V or V7 or the new key, (a D major or D seventh chord in G).

One can used chromatic chords (through the use of secondary dominants for example) for a short period of time (called tonicization) without changing key if a return to the original key happens quickly.

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    So, F# is played... how do you know the tonal center is G and not C like in C lydian? – piiperi Reinstate Monica Mar 23 at 5:21
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica - possibly because there are thousands of times more tunes in Ionian than in Lydian? – Tim Mar 23 at 6:44
  • @Tim I just can't see how this answers the OP's question. "There's an F# ... maybe the key changed to G", that's just a guess, but how do you know what is right? How does this answer show how to validate the list of guessed tonal centers? – piiperi Reinstate Monica Mar 23 at 6:56
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica - I see what you're saying. Possibly that F# needs to move straight to G - several times - would be 'proof' that we're in key G? – Tim Mar 23 at 7:48
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    The point is to make the F# sound "native." One suggestion (Schoenberg?) is to use a V7/V, V7, I cadential pattern. Older books (1800s and some modern ones) call "tonicization" a "short modulation." To some extent, it's a matter of time. Some analysts (Schenker?) sometimes describe sonata exposition as being in a single key with an excursion. Labels are less important than noticing that short chromatic uses sound different from key changes and there's an intermediate region; composers use any one that sounds good to them at the time. – ttw Mar 23 at 12:38

The way to figure out what the tonic is, is to see around which note the melody revolves and resolves.

If you have a song that is in C major, the melody will most likely be based around the note C. Take note though, that the melody will emphasize the note C. That means it will be played in cadences, in strong beats etc, if the composer wants to give you the feeling that it is the tonic.

Also, since we are talking about Tonal Music, you can take a look at the leading tone. In this kind of music, the leading tone will lead (most of the times) to the tonic. So let's take once again the C major example. In this scale the leading tone is B and it will lead to C.

There are many ways to see if/when/how the tonic has changed, but the simplest way would be to see if the above statements have changed. E.g. if the tonic has changed to A major, you would find that the melody revolves around the note A, the leading tone would be G# and it'd lead to A.

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    @piiperiReinstateMonica sometimes yes, other times no. It depends on what kind of song it is. Bach in his chorales used to have multiple parallel lines, but still, you could figure out the tonic center by using (some) of the aforementioned points. The same goes for ambient orchestral backgrounds. Basically, this is one of the things you are being taught in harmony lessons – Shevliaskovic Mar 23 at 8:58
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    Keep in mind that it is highly likely for the composer to deliberately omit a tonic – Shevliaskovic Mar 23 at 9:00
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    Not at all sure I agree with the first two statements. A melody doesn't necessarily be based around or emphasise the tonic note. I need to do some homework on that, but it doesn't seem to reflect reality in at least some of the stuff I play. That may be genre - based. True, a lot of the time, the final note is the tonic, but that's not set in stone. – Tim Mar 23 at 9:14
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    All this reminds me of 'Sweet Home Alabama'. Some bands I've played it with are adamant it's in key G, while others are equally adamant that it's in key D. Rather a difference... – Tim Mar 23 at 9:46
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica probably you've never heard of "analyzing scores" :) – Shevliaskovic Mar 24 at 11:15

There's nothing objective that makes the tonic the tonic. It's a question of judgment and perception, rather than well-defined rules. It's certainly possible to point to conventions within certain styles of music, but nothing definitive.

Sometimes, two people will disagree on what the tonic is. Sometimes it might not be clear that there's an established tonic at all.

The tonic is the tonic for you if you feel it is, and it's changed for you if you feel it's changed. Yes, that may not be true for the next person, but that's the nature of subjective things.

(Please also see user45266's excellent answer!)

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    I think this is the only real answer - you feel the tonic, you don't calculate it. If you have to calculate with logical rules, you're lost and disoriented like a pilot who doesn't know which way is up. So many things contribute to the perception of tonic, like rhythmic placement of notes and chord changes in relation to a perceived beat. How many seconds does the feeling of tonic stay, how many seconds does it take to settle down somewhere - it's a very fuzzy and "analog" phenomenon. Not digital rule-based deduction. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Mar 23 at 8:57
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica - that's fair enough, but would one think that the composer already had a tonic in his mind's ear while writing? Maybe in order to put a key sig. – Tim Mar 23 at 9:09
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    @Tim ...but then of course a key sig doesn't define a tonic - and tonics can change even when key sigs don't. And not all compositional processes require having a tonic in mind (though I wouldn't dispute that there are many cases where a) they do, and b) people would be able to follow the composer's thoughts) – topo Reinstate Monica Mar 23 at 11:22
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    @Dom "99.9% of the time in tonal music there is an objective tonic" - or maybe even 100%, depending on your definition of "tonal"! The question doesn't give a definition, or even specify that it's about "tonal" music for that matter. "Just because you can look at something one way or another does not mean it's not defined or not objective" - well, clearly it does mean that there is no one objective way of looking at it. If we agree there, we agree. – topo Reinstate Monica Mar 23 at 15:43
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    @topoReinstateMonica I'm not trying to be discouraging, but I don't see this as an answer to the question. The other answers are giving the OP direction to figuring it out, this answer just comments on how perception can be different which is true, but doesn't get the OP closer to their answer which the others do. – Dom Mar 23 at 16:52

...other than forcing the listener to come from and go back to the selected note as the center?

I take that to mean devices like repeating a certain tone or rhythmic things like putting a tone on a strong beat or ending of phrases.

That pretty much leaves harmony as the means of defining the tonic.

In the major/minor system cadential harmony defines the tonic. That seems to be the most straight forward way to put it, but of course you then need to understand cadences. A lot of that can be reduced to simply identifying the dominant chord and then by extension you will know what the tonic is.

There is only one diatonic dominant seventh chord in a key (in minor that chord uses a raised seventh degree.) If the dominant chord is only a triad or otherwise incomplete, you need some other degrees used in the surrounding harmony to complete the tonal picture.

If you can group three tones so that they are separated by fourths, and there is an additional degree a half step below the middle tone of the three, then you have identified the essential tones. The three degrees separated by fourths are the tonal degrees, the tonic is the middle one, and the tone one half step below it is the leading tone.

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  • Maybe you don't need to understand cadences, non-musos can often pinpoint where cadences occur, and thus find what they think is a tonic, just by how the trend of the music moves to a conclusion. It's not exclusive to learned musicians. – Tim Mar 24 at 9:35
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    Sure, their ears can hear the tonic/cadence, but then the question becomes: why? how? So then you explain the theory. – Michael Curtis Mar 24 at 14:45

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