Piano and keyboard

The Tonic Note, the Tonic Chord, and the Hook

Writing a good song means creating an enticing musical journey for your listeners. Like most “real” journeys, it involves a place of rest and repose (often the end of a chorus), a journey outward (the verse and optional pre-chorus), and then the journey back home (the main chorus).

It might also involve little side trips (the bridge, an instrumental solo, etc.), but once the journey is done, you feel like you’ve been somewhere interesting, to the point where you might like to experience that again.

A Song’s Sense of Journey, and the Tonic Chord

The feeling of journey that a good song provides often comes down to the use of the tonic chord in your song, and its crucial role in the creation of your song’s main chorus hook.

The tonic chord is the one that represents the key of your song. “Hey Jude”, for example, is in the key of F major, and most of the chords used in that song are ones that naturally occur in that key. The F chord is the one that represents the key, and so F is the tonic chord.

Hooks & RiffsHooks and Riffs: How They Grab Attention, Make Songs Memorable, and Build Your Fan Base” shows you how a good hook can make the difference between songwriting success and failure. With great examples from pop music history.

“Hey Jude” has a verse-bridge-verse design, where the verse part represents that journey outward from F major, the bridge takes us on a little journey away from that chord (toward Bb major), and then back to F major for the final section.

The tonic chord is an integral part of the sense of journey within songs. It acts as a kind of placemark or flag, one that says, “This is home.” Without that, a song might instead sound like a long musical wandering with no real sense of direction.

The Tonic Chord and the Chorus Hook

Most songs use a strong hook in the chorus. It can be vital, as it gives the audience something memorable and easy to sing. An important part of a song’s hook is the tonic chord. Most hooks are short, using one to three chords, where the tonic chord is often the most important one. (Think of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” as a good example.

Song hooks are typically structured to be simple and repetitious, and for that reason the tonic chord can play an important role, constantly reminding the listener of where “home” is.

All of this information about the tonic chord and its use in your songs can serve as a kind of troubleshooting guide. For most songs, you can ask yourself:

  • Do I use the tonic chord more in the chorus than in the verse? (The answer should usually be ‘Yes’.)
  • Does the tonic chord provide a feeling of “rest” when I hear it in my chorus? (Usually ‘Yes’.)
  • Does the verse progression seem to act like a kind of journey away from home, returning back home near the start of the chorus? (Usually ‘Yes’.)

If you’re not sure what the key of your song is, give this blog post a read: “How to Know What Key Your New Chord Progression Is In

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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