“Stronger”, and the Power of the Tonic Note

The tonic note of your song’s key has the ability to give the chorus a lot of punch. Here are some quick tips.


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Kelly Clarkson: "Stronger" Album-CoverI’ve been mentioning a lot lately the seven chords that exist naturally in the key you choose for your song. With those seven chords, there’s a definite hierarchy. The tonic chord, which is the one that acts as “home base”, is definitely the most important one. It’s the chord that tends to act as a start and finish for most of the harmonic journeys that your song takes. For example, if your song is in F major, most of the chord progressions will move away from, and back toward, the F chord.

And it’s even more than that. In a sense, as your progressions move away from the tonic, song energy builds. When we finally hear the tonic again, there’s a shot of energy, then a feeling of musical release and resolution.

The tonic note has a similar kind of power. It’s at least partially for that reason that the tonic note and chord tend to show up more often in choruses than in verses. Because we’re quite happy to allow energy and momentum to build during a verse, it can be beneficial to avoid the tonic somewhat until you reach the chorus.

That’s why we often like to use so-called “fragile” progressions in the verse. A fragile progression is one that doesn’t point necessarily clearly to the tonic. That feeling of avoiding the tonic can build song energy.

That’s the textbook explanation of the power of the tonic note. Kelly Clarkson’s hit “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” (written by Jörgen Elofsson, Ali Tamposi, David Gamson, and Greg Kurstin), however, has a slightly different take on the tonic note and its use. This song actually features the tonic note quite a bit, in both the verse and the chorus.

So if the tonic note gives us this sense of power and release, why is it being used so often in the verse? Why not avoid the tonic note in the verse, as most songs do, and use it more often in the chorus?

The secret is in the octave in which we use the note, as well as the accompanying chord progression. And here we find another anomaly: the same progression is used in both the verse and the chorus:

Am  F  C  G/B

Every time we get the tonic note in the verse, it’s accompanied by non-tonic chords (the Am and F). In verses, that avoiding of the tonic chord will help add a bit of tonal ambiguity, and it’s what verses often do. It’s why you’ll often see verses focusing on the minor side of a key, moving to the major during a chorus.

In “Stronger”, however, we get the exact same chord progression in the chorus: Am  F   C  G/B. So how do the writers deliver a greater sense of power and punch to the chorus?

They bump the melody up one octave. So now, in the chorus, we get lots of tonic note (still accompanied by the Am and F), but it’s an octave higher than what we heard in the verse.

It’s the same idea that Tom Petty and Jeff Lynn used in “Free Fallin’“. Lots of tonic note in the verse, then moving the melody up one octave for the chorus punch.

So the moral of the story is that there’s lots of power that comes from the tonic note, but don’t forget the power that comes from considering in which octave you find it.


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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  1. I greatly appreciate these theoretical analyses of popular songs that you occasionally post on your blog. Reading them teaches me more about the tricky art of songwriting than anything else I can think of. Keep ’em coming please!

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