Curing the Problem of Too Much Tonic Chord

Too much tonic chord can result in problems with song energy.


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Pianist playing a chordBecause songs are normally relatively short musical journeys that need to appeal quickly to an audience, most chord progressions tend to be simple and straightforward. The songs that usually sit atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart don’t stray far from the I-, IV- and V-chords, with the occasional ii, vi, and various altered chords thrown in.

Because a chord progression is part of what helps to establish that short musical journey, the tonic chord – the chord that represents your song’s key – is bound to show up fairly often. And because the tonic chord offers a sense of rest and repose musically speaking, it can impede the flow of your music to have it show up too much.

If you’ve developed some chord progressions that sound fine, but feature the tonic chord too much, here are some ways of subtly replacing that chord throughout your song. All of these suggestions result in something that will need another progression following it, but that’s usually its strength: it results in an increase in momentum as the listener automatically expects the eventual return to the tonic chord.

  1. The deceptive cadence. If you have a progression that ends on a I-chord, especially if your progression uses that I-chord often, you can change the final chord to a vi-chord or any other chord that fits your melody note. This gives a non-final ending to your progression, so you’ll need to follow that with a progression that does eventually give a more final ending. EXAMPLE: Change [C  F  Dm  G  C] to [C  F  Dm  G  Am].
  2. The inverted tonic chord. If you’ve got a progression that uses lots of tonic chord, try inverting one or more of those chords. To invert a chord means to get your bass player to play a different chord tone other than the root of the tonic chord, and it’s something you’ll want to experiment with. In the following progressions, the note in front of the slash is the chord name, and the note after the slash is the bass note. EXAMPLE: Change [C  F  C  G  C  Dm  G  C] to [C  F  C/G  G  C/E  Dm  G  C].
  3. Use an altered chord. An altered chord is one that doesn’t normally belong to your key of choice. The most common ones to experiment with are flat-VII, flat-III, and II (i.e., a major chord built on the second degree of the scale.) They work best placed near the beginning or in the middle of a progression. And of course, it needs to fit the melody note of the moment. EXAMPLE: Change [C  F  Dm  G  C  F  C  G  C] to [C  F  Bb  G  C  D  C/G  G  C].

Resist the temptation to fix a progression (or any other aspect of a song) without noticing a problem. In other words, just because your progression features the tonic chord a lot doesn’t mean that there is necessarily a problem.

But the symptom that the tonic chord is making too much of an appearance in your song is that the energy of the music seems haphazard, never seeming to get going. Solving it takes, as mentioned, a fair bit of experimentation, but you’ll probably notice that too much tonic chord is often the culprit.


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  1. Pingback: Enhanced Voice Leading Through Chord Inversion | kurthartle

  2. Substitution By Function, is something the Beatles used a lot ,It’s worth mentioning that
    there are three tonic chords, in the scale of C Major and of course in any other major key
    The 1 chord has the harmonic function of Tonic the A minor from the relative minor key to C major is also Tonic , also the flattened 3 rd minor (E Minor) is also Tonic substituting a Tonic for a Tonic is a great way to give your song a fresh sound. the other two harmonic chord categories being the Dominant and the Sub Dominant , we can substitute any Dominant chord from your home key for another Dominant and the same substitution can be made for Sub Dominant (Like For Like)

    A good example of the above is “Sometimes When We Touch” Barry Mann the composer
    substitutes the keys One chord for a Third minor at the forth measure of the Chorus.
    If you know the melody of this songs Chorus , sing the first Four bars to these four Chords
    D/// G/// A7/// D///. now sing it a second time to these Four Chords
    D/// G/// A7/// Em7/// . And you will hear the difference, The Prosody of the words and music on the second version is perfect
    .Where as the first version would have the response of “So What”
    Any Learning Composer worth his/her sort, should study Harmonic Function, and using
    Substitution By Function is the difference between your song sounding Amature and Professional.

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