Avoiding the tonic chord has the benefit of making listeners wait around until they hear it.
One of the most obvious ways to keep people listening to your songs is to create hooks that constantly demand attention. It’s something that producers and industry personnel love, because a hook is conspicuous. You can wave a good hook around like a flag and listeners flock to it.
But sometimes, subtle is better. With Nashville folk singer-songwriter Liza Anne, she uses a less obvious but quietly every bit as powerful technique in her song, “Watering Can“: avoid ending a phrase on the tonic chord.
The tonic chord is the one that represents the key of your song. If your song is in C major, the tonic chord is C. There’s a sense of destination, of musical relaxation you might say, that comes with a tonic chord. Play through the following progression, and you’ll hear that sense of rest when you get to the end:
C Am G Em F G C
It’s fairly common to use the tonic chord as a kind of musical target which gets placed at the end of a phrase, so I am certainly not saying that ending a phrase on the tonic is wrong. Think of the end of the second phrase of The Beatles’ “Let It Be”, and you’ll hear what I mean. (“Speaking words of wisdom/ Let it be…”) The tonic chord that ends that phrase has a way of saying, “This section is now finished.”
“Watering Can” is in Db major, so Db is the tonic chord, the one that usually gives the impression of musical repose. Liza Anne uses standard progressions from Db major, most of them playing around with Gb Bbm Db Absus4 Ab.
And no matter what slight alterations we hear in those chords, we never hear the tonic chord happen at the end of a phrase. The Db is always quietly tucked in somewhere in the middle.
The chord she chooses to end phrases with is Ab, and sometimes Bbm. What does this do? It builds musical momentum by delaying the sense of rest — of musical relaxation.
In that sense, “Watering Can” is a run-on sentence, in the very best sense of that term. One phrase begs for the next one, and keeps people listening every bit as effectively (but much more subtly) as an up-front hook might do.
Manipulating chord progressions in this way can yield interesting results. When listeners hear the tonic chord being delayed or purposely obscured, there is a sense of the musical journey needing to continue. Just as a commuter stays on a train until they see “home,” a listener will stay with a song until the end.
Liza Anne’s newest album release, “Two,” includes her song “Northern Wind,” which, rather than avoiding the tonic chord, purposely obscures it by making it unclear if the song is in C major or A minor.
If you’re not familiar with Liza Anne’s music, it is definitely worth checking out. She’s a singer-songwriter to watch. You can preview her music on iTunes, and check out other songs on her YouTube channel.
– Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter