Rolling Stones

A Rare Tonic Note Creates Forward Motion in Your Songs

The tonic note is the one that represents the key of your song, and it has the main quality of feeling like “home”. When a tonic note happens, it sounds as if a musical phrase has, even just temporarily, ended, and the next one can begin.

That’s a good reason why the tonic note happens a lot in song choruses, and less so in verses, though you get it in both.

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The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (Jagger/Richards) is a great song for demonstrating the power of the tonic note in musical phrases. The verse starts by moving in and around the tonic note, but never hitting it on a strong beat: the tonic note happens on the “is” syllable of “satisfaction”.

In the second half of the verse, the tonic note is nailed over and over again (“When I’m driving in my car…”). That repeated tonic note (and actually, the fact that it’s a repeated note at all) suddenly strengthens the power of the lyric itself. Repeated notes are great for communicating strong emotions and opinions.

So you go from a gently undulating melody (“I can’t get no satisfaction”), to a melody that moves higher and higher, generating strong musical energy (“’cause I try, and a I try…”), to finally emoting strongly (“When I’m driving in my car/And a man comes on the radio…”).

In Lennon & McCartney’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”, the opening verse only hits the tonic note in very incidental, unimportant ways, practically avoiding it entirely. Each line of the verse sounds like it could end on the tonic, but ends by rising up to hit the 3rd:

What would you do if I sang out of tune
Would you stand up and walk out on me…

When the chorus happens, the final note of every line is a tonic note, and we feel the release of musical energy at that moment:

“Oh I get by with a little help from my friends…”

The power of the tonic note is more realized when it isn’t there. So instead of thinking of it as “the power of the tonic note”, it might be more accurate, particularly with regard to verses, to speak of “the power of not using the tonic note.”

When song verses sound like they’re having trouble generating some forward motion, the best solution is often to go through your melodies and look for ways to avoid using the tonic note: make it a rare note.

Most of the time, when you follow that up by using the tonic note more in the chorus, the energy of your music sounds right. And the same thing applies to chord choice: try using the tonic chord less in your verse, and more in your chorus.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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