so im trying to answer this question for my music teacher and i'm trying to do research of it, but she hasn't been very specific with the question...any help?

  • 1
    Good question - let's hope there are some good answers.
    – Tim
    May 21, 2020 at 14:25
  • People are drawn to a tonal center, that's a fact and you can take it as a law of nature. What chain of events has lead to it being so ... it's either biological or cultural. I'm not sure how to find out which. May 21, 2020 at 14:32
  • While the question says "many" and not "all people", there is at least one culture that does not distinguish in terms of pleasantness between what we would call consonant and dissonant ( nature.com/articles/nature18635 ). So there is probably some culture without tonality (in fact, I'm pretty sure that it's actually pretty unique to Western classical music; some pop songs like "Sweet Home Alabama" with cyclic chord progressions have ambiguous tonics, for starters).
    – awe lotta
    May 21, 2020 at 19:41
  • 1
    @awelotta your comment alludes to another important question - "Why do you think many people are drawn to discussing the tonality of Sweet Home Alabama"? May 21, 2020 at 23:25
  • 1
    Are you asking "What exactly does this question given to me means?"? May 22, 2020 at 6:53

4 Answers 4


This question brings to mind the line...

it's turtles all the way down


why do magnets repel each other?

How far do you want to take this question about why rather than how or when?

If animals aren't compelled to do something for their survival, they tend to rest. Actually, rest is part of survival, because it doesn't waste energy. Rest is a state to seek out to maximize survival.

Fast forward through to a bunch of metaphors about music, physical mechanics like up/down, simplicity equals stability, etc. and get to the idea that a tonal center is a place of rest.

Symbolically people like arriving at that point of rest, because rest is an ideal state to be in.

That little chain of idea is my own, but it's similar to a common textbook description which equates tonal center with home. It's a general notion of rest, safety, familiarity.

Why do you think many people are drawn to a tonal center?


I'm not sure I buy into the whole idea that strongly.

Sure, there are dynamics in music about center, balance, regularity, etc. But I don't think "tonal center" is so important compared to rhythm. A lot of music just alternates auxillary tones around something I would call a reciting tone. I suppose that could be a "tonal center", but that seems too sophisticated a term for such simple music. Schoenberg called that kind of simple music "primitive." So, I sort of reject the basic premise that a tonal center matters to many people.


This has been a big question for centuries. It's more in the realm of psychology than music. One place to start is David Butler's article: "Describing the Perception of Tonality in Music: A Critique of the Tonal Hierarchy Theory and a Proposal for a Theory of Intervallic Rivalry" which is available on JSTOR. One can sometimes get JSTOR access as an individual. Students can get access through their institution.There are other works going back to Helmholz and Seashore (and even Plato).


Some, though by no means all, sounds in nature are periodic looked at from the time domain, consisting (very simplistically) of a set of harmonic partials, each a multiple of a fundamental frequency, when looked at from the frequency domain. There is an evolutionary advantage in being able to identify such sounds and perceive their pitch and timbre: You can tell if the cry of an animal is close or far away; or if it's a small or large animal, for example. As a human, being able to distinguish pitch and timbre is a useful social tool that helps distinguish voices, and later on in the evolutionary timeline, gives the ability for spoken language to evolve, which gives another survival advantage.

To this end, our auditory system has evolved to become very good at recognising harmonic series, and reconciling them into the perception of a certain pitch and timbre.

Following on from that, you can create an interesting and stimulating aural effect - you might even see it as an illusion - by playing periodic sounds together that are related in pitch by a simple ratio, such as 2:1 or 3:2. The ear to can to some degree recognise these as different sounds - after all, they each have their own harmonic series present. But some of the partials of the notes will be the same - for example, if we play notes of 100 and 150 Hz together, we'll get partials at 300, 600, 900... (and so on) Hz that are in common to both notes. This causes the ear to simultaneously also want to hear them as the 'same' sound, because they do also have that common set of partials.

What we could do, if we wanted to be really interesting, is to start with one note, and then add a couple more notes that had a simple frequency relationship with those, and then perhaps add in a couple more notes that, in turn, had a simple frequency relationship with those...

...and that's what tonal music is, essentially - the creation of a hierarchy of frequency relationships around a particular note, that the ear will naturally hear as the 'centre' of the whole set of patterns because it is the focal point of the way the patterns of shared harmonics fall together.

As humans have evolved, we've developed not only perceptive abilities, but we also develop cultural preferences. It's likely that some cultures would become particularly interested in the aforementioned interesting aural illusion of related frequencies, and some would become interested in other aspects of sound. And that does in fact seem to have been the case - we have cultures that have developed a lot more complexity in rhythm, we have cultures that have become interested in inharmonic, bell-like sounds, and ended up with different sets of pitch ratios relating in different scales, but we also have cultures that have become interested in exploring the complexities of frequency relationships between sounds whose timbre follows the harmonic series. This inevitably leads you to the concept of a 'root' note or pitch in some form, because the ear is forever trying to see if it can reconcile the patterns of energy it's detecting at different frequencies.

  • Am I reading you correctly? There is a basic human ability regarding pitch/timbre, but the importance of hearing a tonal center depends on culture? May 21, 2020 at 20:57
  • @MichaelCurtis I think that's both a reasonable summary of part of what I was saying, and fairly evidently true - so yes! :) May 21, 2020 at 23:23
  • I thought so, but then why would tonal center be a "draw" in one culture but not another seems the crux of the question. May 22, 2020 at 12:22
  • @MichaelCurtis I think it's always the case that just because the human body has the mechanics to do something, it doesn't mean that thing necessarily becomes interesting to all people, or groups of people. Sometime in the 90s, 'Magic eye' pictures were all the rage - now, not so much, but not because of the human eye suddenly working differently. May 22, 2020 at 14:52

A thought experiment

In a sense, there's no hope of finding the right answer to this question until you can show the equivalence of all the various tonal systems present in human music—and even then, what if we discover aliens whose scales and modes are just like those used in Western classical music, except that the aliens regard the locrian mode as the most stable and beautiful and couldn't possibly fathom ending a song on a major triad? The fact that the scales and modes are the same would lend evidence to the Pythagorean theory of frequences related by integer ratios; the fact that a diminished chord is chosen as the tonic would lend evidence to the constructivist notion that tonality is just a product of cultural training.

Defining tonality

In the absence of forbidden nature/nurture experiments in search of a universal grammar of tonality, it's important to consider what tonality really means. Many people will tell you that tonality means establishing a certain pitch as the tonal "center," and then creating tension and release by moving (harmonically) "away from" and "toward" the center. Every conventionally tonal piece starts in a "stable" place, moves to an "unstable" place, and then returns to "stability," if you view it from a sufficiently broad vantage.

But notice that all this talk of "centers" and "stability" has nothing to do with what's literally happening when we play music. D♭ and C are close together in frequency but relatively unrelated harmonically, but vice-versa for G and C. You can argue that G and C are "close" because their frequencies are in near integer ratios, but what's so special about integers? Why aren't irrational frequency ratios considered more beautiful expressions of human life, because they create a composite wave that varies endlessly instead of repeating? But let's suppose that integer ratios are, normatively, better—then how do you explain the many musical contexts in which a transition from a D♭ to a C chord does sound great and convey a sense of arrival? How do you explain extratonal practices like blue notes, bending, and detuning that make music sound more warm and accessible, despite the math?

Tonality is a metaphor

The notion of a tonal center is not a formula from which we derive the rest of music theory. It is a metaphor that helps musicians conceptualize what they are playing and composing. Musicians know what they mean when they speak of being "far" from the tonic, even as they recognize the shortcomings of the metaphor.

So, I would turn your question around a bit:

Why do you think many people are drawn to a tonal center?

They are drawn to a tonal center because it a compelling metaphor for the mysterious phenomenon that is music.

But music is broad, and tonality is not the only metaphor available for understanding it. We can also develop a robust theory of tension and release surrounding rhythm, lyric, orchestration, or cultural context. I would encourage any music student to investigate these elements independently in order to gain a fuller picture of how they work together to make music exciting and resonant.

  • One thing that is special about (near) (small) integer ratios is that two notes, if each of the sounds are basically periodic waveforms, will share harmonics in common - that's a reasonably objective truth. One of the assumptions my answer is based on is that the ear subjectively finds this 'interesting', but admittedly I've not done a trawl around to find any relevant research to back that up! May 22, 2020 at 8:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.