Tonal music is music that has a particular key center, or home note. Not all music is tonal, but most is, worldwide.
The key note is at the center of the lattice of fifths and thirds. All other notes are generated from this one. I call it the 1. It’s also called the tonic. When we say a song is “in the key of A,” we mean that A is the tonic.
This isn’t any particular A. In the key of A, every one of the ten or so A’s within the range of human hearing is a tonic, or perhaps more accurately some octave of the tonic. The tonic itself is an abstract concept, of “A-ness.” In concert pitch, A is defined as a vibration of 440 cycles per second (called Hertz, or Hz), and any octave of this, up or down, is also a tonic. Thanks to a remarkable (and handy) quirk of human perception, multiplying or dividing a pitch by 2 does not change its essential character. So 220Hz is also an A, as are 110, 55, 27.5 — and 880, 1760 and so on forever.
The tonic doesn’t even have to be one of the 12 equal-tempered notes — it can be halfway between A and A#, and it will still work just as well. The rest of the notes are simply calculated from that home note. The resulting music will be in tune with itself, and will sound fine, even though it has no relation to concert (A=440) tuning. In learning songs from old recordings, I’ve found that many are in between two official keys. The instruments are tuned to each other, but not to any outside reference. They sound great.
The tonic sounds like home. The great driver of tonal music is the sense of departure from, and return to, home.
Be Love, like many tonal songs, starts right off with the tonic. It makes a statement, with the very first note: “This is where home is.”
Again and again throughout the song, the music departs from home, creating tension, and then returns to it, relieving the tension. The following clip contains two such homecomings, at 0:07 and again right at the end.
Then, finally, the song ends with the tonic. Ahhhh. Journey complete, the lattice has been explored, and after many adventures Sam Gamgee is back in Hobbiton.
Not all songs begin and end on the tonic. If you want the song to sound resolved, finished, end it on the tonic. If you want it to sound unresolved, unfinished, end it on another note. It’s a powerful tool. Listen to the end of Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love.
Have you ever had the experience of the audience clapping at the wrong time, in the middle of a song? It’s embarrassing!
Usually it happens when you pause for dramatic effect, and the audience thinks you are finished. You can send a strong signal that the song is not over by pausing on a chord that is clearly not the tonic. Then, when you do want the audience to clap, give them a big tonic chord and they’ll know what to do.
Next: The Compass Points