Songwriting and the Impact of the Tonic Note

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Melodic StructureWe know that melodies tend to work their way higher as a song progresses from the start of a verse to the end of a chorus. This rising shape helps to generate song energy and forward motion. The nice thing is that the building of energy through use of a rising melody line is subtle. You’re able to allow your song to gain momentum without having it be obvious how it’s happening. Another very subtle way of generating energy is through the clever placement of the tonic note and chord. Here’s how that works.

The tonic is the note represented by the key of your song. So if your song is in A major, the note A is the tonic note, and a chord built on that note is called the tonic chord.

There’s a lot of power that happens when the melody features a tonic note at the same time that the harmonies feature a tonic chord. And not just a lot of power: there’s a sense of “finality”, a feeling of completeness that occurs.

For that reason, you will want to be careful when you bring the tonic note and chord together in your song. Here are some tips to consider:

  1. If your verse melody uses the tonic note, especially at the ends of lyric lines, avoid using the tonic chord at the same time.If you do find the tonic chord happening a lot in your verse, try substituting it with a different chord. Often, the vi-chord works well as a substitute.
  2. If your verse chord progressions feature the tonic chord a lot, avoid the tonic note in your melody. Often, the tonic note in a melody can be easily substituted with a different note from the tonic chord.
  3. Allow your chorus melody to feature the tonic note and chord a lot, particularly at the end of lyric lines. That reiteration of the tonic will give a feeling of harmonic and melodic “completeness”, and that’s often ideal in a chorus.
  4. If your chorus ends on the tonic chord, allow at least a few bars before the end of the chorus to be tonic-chord-free. That will make the tonic chord sound stronger and more welcome.
  5. You can actually gain a lot of musical energy in the bridge of your song by avoiding the tonic chord and note altogether. This is particularly true if your chorus uses lots of tonic.

The danger that comes from using the tonic note and chord too much in your verse has to do with building song energy too much, too quickly. You usually want a verse to sound incomplete, as if it needs something more (i.e, the chorus) to follow it.

So if you use the tonic too much in your verse, your chorus will have trouble generating the energy it needs to shine.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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