Building a Climactic Moment: the Tonic Note and Chord

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Adele - Someone Like YouAdele’s hit, “Someone Like You”, demonstrates an important feature of melody; specifically, how the power of a melody is, in partnership with vocal range, governed by how the tonic note and chord are used. Most songs will exhibit an important principle of song energy, where momentum at the beginning of a verse is low compared to the energy at the end of the chorus. There are lots of ways this is achieved, but some of the best ways to build energy and create a climactic moment can come from interplay between the tonic note and chord. “Someone Like You” is a perfect model to study this phenomenon.

Part of what makes this song so good to study is that the piano accompaniment is rather static; the job of crafting the energy plan of this song lies mainly with the voice and the melodic choices that are made. The piano plays an entirely supportive role.

The melody does that thing that we expect from all love ballads: starts low, then moves higher and louder for the chorus. But there’s something else going on, and it revolves around the use of the tonic note and chord.

Because the tonic note is the key note, we psychologically assign a great deal of significance to it. There is considerable power that comes from it. There’s also a strong sense of “home” that comes from its use. Many melodies will, for that reason, end on the tonic note; it offers a vital sense of completion and repose at the end of melodies.

Tonic chords add a second angle, if you will. That’s because the power of the tonic note fluctuates depending on the harmony of the moment. A tonic note that coincides with the tonic chord has great power. But a tonic note that coincides with a different chord, such as the IV-chord, diminishes that power.

You can combine the tonic note and chord, and add in the range of that tonic note (i.e., is it high or is it low), and you’ve now got several ways to build a climactic moment in your melody.

And it explains why the melody for “Someone Like You” contains so much power. The verse uses the tonic chord as its harmonic focus: I  iii6  vi  IV (A  C#m/G#  F#m  D), but the tonic note is used sparingly if at all. The verse melody oscillates between the dominant and mediant notes (from E down to C#), with the tonic note always appearing in the verse on the weakest parts of the bar.

The tonic note starts to appear more and more through the pre-chorus (“Hate to turn up out of the blue uninvited…”), but always in a low range, and never at the same time as the tonic chord.

The chorus is where we finally get the tonic note and chord, combined with the power of Adele’s upper range, all coinciding to produce the song’s climactic moment: “Never mind, I’ll find someone like you…”

For students of songwriting, it’s time well spent to take a close look at other songs, and try to identify the tonic note and chord, and analyze their use. More often than not, you’ll find that especially with songs that have subdued instrumental accompaniments, how those two musical features appear in the song governs how the energy builds to create a climactic moment.

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