Getting the Most Out Of the Tonic Note

How you use the tonic note in your song can go along way to controlling musical energy.


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Acoustic GuitarSome might say that it’s not all that important to know the key of your song as you’re writing it; as long as you have chords that work well together, knowing the key is just extra information that’s not really all that important. But by knowing the key of your song you can identify the tonic note and chord, and that can play a big role in strengthening the structure of your music. Here’s how that works.

The tonic note is the one that represents the key of your song. If your song is in C major, C is the tonic note and the C-chord is the tonic chord. They assume a position of great importance in your music, as they represent a kind of “musical goal” with regard to chord progressions and melodies.

You’ll notice that in many songs, the tonic note appears more in a chorus melody than a verse melody. There is a good reason for that. Since tonic notes feel like “home”, a metaphorical place of rest, it can kill the forward motion of your song if it appears too often in the verse.

But in a chorus, the tonic note sounds more powerful, more final. For that reason, a chorus is a good place for it. The same applies to tonic chords, not just tonic notes. A tonic chord offers a strong sense of finality and power that is very useful in a chorus.

So if you’ve recently written a song, but find that the energy sounds haphazard, it may be that the tonic note is being used in a way that kills song energy. Here’s what to look for:

  1. See if you’ve used the tonic note more in the verse than the chorus. (That shouldn’t be the case… it’s more normal for the tonic note and chord to appear more frequently in a chorus).
  2. If you have lots of tonic notes in your verse, see if you can change the chord underneath it to be a non-tonic chord. That will help to keep forward motion and energy intact.
  3. If you use lots of tonic chords in your verse, see if you can change the melody note above it to a non-tonic note.
  4. Try to avoid the tonic chord (as much as possible) in a song bridge. The bridge needs to wander away from the tonic to make its return in the chorus more welcome.


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  1. Thanks for the answers Gary !

    I was working on a composition (and more presicely on its basslines) when I read you post yesterday, so it came just at the right moment to… positively perturbate my work, really I made a lot of variations. Song (which is for an industrial product commercial movie btw) is oh so obvious 4/4. My bassline on the Verse (verse is Aminor scale, to give a minor mood in the start) has a lot of A notes. The pads chords on on the first and fifth phrase of the 8 bars module start with Amin chord too. Lead melody is using A, C, D, F and some accidentals sharps.

    But for the Chorus (in CMajor scale, to resolve with the movie showing at that timing great USPs of the product), I started to modify the bassline with a majority of C notes (root of Cmaj scale). I agree that this all-in modulation may be somtimes too harsch : bassline, lead, pads, all is raised to the new scale. Do you advice to use the same root note for the both bassline (verse and chorus), and in this case should it be A or C (root note of Amin and C scale respectively) ?

    By following your excellent blog, I discovered that I am quite atypical writer as I always tend to start working on the… verse 😉

  2. Pingback: Interesting Links For Musicians and Songwritiers – October 17, 2013 | Creative Music | Inspiring Musical Creativity

  3. Interesting. But is it still valid in a case where the Verse (or song) is in one scale (A harmonic minor as an exemple), and the Chorus in another (C Major, thus C is the tonic here)?

    • That’s a great question, and treads into another important area of key identification. Most of the time when a verse is in a minor key (A minor, for example) and then switches to major for the chorus (C major, for example), the fact is that the verse can still be considered to be in C major, but choosing mainly minor chords from the key. It’s a bit of a contentious issue, because it gets into a different area of key identification. But in most cases, if a song is in A minor and switches to C major for the chorus, you’ll likely see that the melodic structures are very tied to C major throughout, regardless of key. In that sense, C is probably acting as a tonic note. But the problem (if you can call it that) solves itself, because you’ll likely see that most times that a C happens in the verse melody, the note is accompanied by an Am, diminishing the negative effect of having too much tonic happening in your verse.

      Good question!

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