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The Tonic Note: What It Is, and Why It’s Important

The tonic note is the one that represents the key that your song is in. If your song is in C major, the tonic note is C, and the tonic chord is C as well. If your song changes key, let’s say from an A minor verse to a C major chorus, the tonic note will also change, from A to C.

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The tonic note gives a sense of finality to a song. Think of Lennon & McCartney’s “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, and you’ll notice that the entire verse avoids any occurrence of a tonic note. The first time we hear it is in the chorus/refrain. When the line “I want to hold your hand” happens, the word “I” is sung on a high tonic, and the end of the word “hand” is a low tonic.

And when we listen to that song, the avoidance of the tonic note in the verse is part of what creates forward motion — a kind of musical momentum that keeps us locked-in, keeps us listening for the tonic. When the tonic finally happens we experience a feeling of “having arrived” at the conclusion of a musical journey.

In most songs that you listen to, if you make note of when and where the tonic note happens, you’ll see that it happens far more in the chorus than it does in the verse. In analytical terms, it’s almost like the verse feels like a journey away from the tonic, while the chorus is like a journey back.

The children’s song “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” demonstrates a typical kind of use for the tonic note: the first phrase starts on the tonic and wanders upward; the second phrase starts upward but wanders back down to the tonic note.

In your own songs, you should also be noticing this tendency of more use of a tonic note in the chorus than in the verse.

The Tonic Note In Verse-Only Songs

In verse-only songs, it should appear as though the tonic note appears near the beginning, but then gets avoided more toward the middle, and then returns toward the end of the verse (or in the refrain, if it ends with one.)

A good model for this kind of use is Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter.

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