Why is the tonic so important for melodies?

I made a simple melody in FL studio that was in C Major. The melody consisted of two phrases both of which started on D. The only difference between the two is the second phrase ended on C (the tonic of C major). The only problem is it didn’t feel resolved ending on the tonic like I thought it would. When I changed the last note of the tonic to a D it sounded resolved even though D is not the tonic of C Major. I’m assuming it has something to do with the context in which I’m using it. For reference, I didn’t use C at all until I tried to resolve the second phrase and the other notes used were D,F,G,A and E. Any insight into why it didn’t sound resolved even though I used the tonic? Is there a fundamental concept I’m missing here?

But is C the tonic if you don’t start there?

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if you started on D, that is the tonic, not C. the ear does not want to believe anything other than the first note (almost all of the time) is the tonic, so your ears are telling you, correctly , that your theory is wrong. If you are using the notes of Cmaj, but starting on D and ending on D, that is actually playing the D-Dorian mode. play THAT over some Dmin chords and it will sound nice.
here is a first-best reference I found on Google that makes a good starting point, albeit is is geared towards guitars: https://www.guitarhabits.com/how-to-play-and-apply-the-dorian-scale/


I thought the tonic note was just the first note n the scale, regardless of what note you actually use?

See Creepr’s response above.

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That’s sort of true, some of the time.

Here’s the deal - scales don’t matter for key. Key is determined by a tonic note and its associated chords, which are ultimately determined by the sharps and flats of the key signature. You can play literally any collection of notes and it’s a scale with a name, but that name changes depending on the key you’re in. Certain sets of notes imply a key, sometimes, but you can’t get a key out of a scale unless you specifically build chords or a key signature out of it.

Tonic note is the tonic note. It’s what everything centers around. It’s “This Piece is in C” and all that. The key of C has specific chords associated with it (circle of fifths, et al). There’s literally nothing you can play over those chords that changes it from being in C. Playing different melodic notes just makes it a different scale (Dorian, Lydian, blues, whatever), but the tonic and the chords determine the key. Just like you were playing a C-maj scale, and then it became a D-Dorian scale because outside the context of any other sounds (like chords in the background), you started on a D.

Here’s a quick exercise. Put C-E-G chords behind your melody. Then change them to D-F-A. Same notes, different keys. Same scale, different name.

You can start playing a scale on whatever note you want. Just because you don’t start on the tonic doesn’t mean it’s not there (that’s pretty common in jazz, actually). Resolution in modern Western music tends to suggest moving from dissonance to consonance, usually to the tonic or 5th, and very occasionally the 3rd.

tl;dr - talking about scales is meaningless without knowing the key and/or chords underlying it.


Ok, so I’m trying to wrap my head around the difference between scales and keys because originally, I thought “key” was just a way of saying that (for the most part) we will be using notes from certain scale. Maybe, C major, maybe B minor etc… But. from what you’re telling me, keys are mostly about being the tonal center of some music. My next question would then be, why do we even call a key major or minor? Why not just call it the of C and not the key of C Major?
I feel like if I’ve learned anything in music theory it’s that there are a lot of rules, but even more exceptions to the rules. Just saying that so you know I get that your answer may be as cut and dry as I’m asking haha

Not a direct answer to your question because I can’t answer it but I’m telling ya, on the advice of my friend (former piano teacher of years), go learn how chords work first–it kind of explains in the micro how everything else works in the macro.

Not saying don’t asking questions, but I spent a lot of time as really confused about scales and keys and then learned about chords and it kind of all fell together intuitively enough for my to make house and techno anyway.

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Keys are a set of rules, a recipe, for a composition. It prescribes which notes are going to be played, by way of setting the flats and sharps, which just tells you whether the next note is a half or whole step away. A key gives you a set of notes that work together in a certain way. What a key is really doing, it’s most important job, is showing you where the suspense (dissonance) and resolution (consonance) are for the notes you’re playing. This is super, super important in most Western music, maybe not as much in other forms.

Chords come from the scale - they’re just stacked notes, normally notes taken from that key. The thing is that, generally, chord structure tends to follow the key closer than melody. The underlying chords provide the basis for the listener, and solidify that ‘tonal center’ that makes a thing feel like it’s in A-Min instead of C-Maj. This is probably why @relic’s piano friend said to start with chords; you get a solid basis for harmony that ties directly back to the key you’re in. A big reason for this is that you can play two notes that a dissonant (half step apart) one after the other and they probably sound a bit dark but ok. Play them at the same time and you really hear that dissonance. Chords are a great way of hearing how those notes are working together, and give a better example of when things are consonant and dissonant.

Scales and melody are the frosting on the cake - they add interest and movement, tend to move a bit quicker than chord patterns, and don’t tend to bother the listener as much when you break from your key for a note or two. There’s still a ‘safe’ area: the notes of the key you’re playing in, but if you think something else sounds good, melody tends to be where people mess around.

Back to the recipe idea - If you’re making an apple pie, there’s a list of things you’re going to put in it (the notes of the key). It’s totally cool to throw some blueberries in there, probably taste great, but if you just skip the apples and only put blueberries, you’re not making an apple pie anymore. What if you put more blueberries than apples? Are you still making an apple pie? Same thing for scales and chords; you can use whatever sounds best, but if you get too far off your musical recipe, theoretically you’ve crossed over into another key or into a more confusing, less defined area. That initial key sets a baseline for ‘known good’ notes that are never going to sound weird or bad.

Actually, if you don’t see a Maj/Min associated with a key, it’s assumed to be major. The difference in major and minor is one note - the third. So between the second and third notes of the scale, minor is a half step and major is a whole step. It’s amazing what a difference that one thing makes. But notice, if you never play a third in your piece (you weirdo, everyone loves thirds), there’s literally no difference between major and minor, all the other notes are the same. But we talk about major and minor (and augmented and diminished and so on) because there’s actually different notes (specifically the relationships between the notes) in there. Change the notes, change the feel.

Here’s another thing to keep in your pocket: major and minor are adjectives, not nouns. That is to say, they’re a descriptor, not a thing. An interval (two notes) can be major or minor (major is a whole step, minor is a half step). A key, or a chord, or scale can be described as major or minor. A composition or movement or solo can be major or minor. It’s just talking about the relationship between things.

I feel like if I’ve learned anything in music theory it’s that there are a lot of rules, but even more exceptions to the rules.

It’s art, so people spend a lot of time finding new ways to interpret and break rules. If you look at the progression of music theory in the 20th century, you find a bunch of people that were taking the accepted norms and either reinterpreting them or creating whole new ways of looking at them. The tough thing here is that there is a vast amount of study and theory out there now, and it gets confusing because a lot of it is variations and completely new systems that you run into while looking for basic info. You really have to start with the basics of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Happy Birthday before you can get your head around Coltrane’s Giant Steps or twelve tone serialism.


I feel like every time I try to learn chords, it just brings me back to scales hahaha

Well of course it does. It should. It is just going to take time.

It’s a good observation @YoungCapone … first of all @Artificer has given a good “beginners guide” to your questions… it bears reading again now and then as you explore these ideas.

Regarding “…even more exceptions to the rule.” That’s because the rules come after the music… not before. The “rules” are really observations that come from analysis of a given style, or historical period, or culture etc. etc. The possibilities for composing are endless … so the “rules” need to keep up as composers break new ground.

If you want to sound like Gregorian Chant… there are “rules” that will guide you to that sound… Jazz… well there’s Dixieland, Straight Ahead, Bebop, Fusion etc. all with some basic “rules” that they share and then “break” in order to get to the next new style.

In general, when people refer to “Music Theory” they mean the “Common Practice Period” of Western Music. Roughly Baroque through Classical and into the Romantic Period. Truly worth learning… as most of what us “western cultures” hear and play is rooted in the “rules” developed during that approximately 250 year period… and continually broken and bent in various ways ever since.

Enjoy your journey :sunglasses::sparkles:

Tones are one of the musical elements that play a significant role in determining the melody of a song. And the song may have no melody without the tone. The tonic is the main note around which the melody of a song is based. For example, in a song with scale (tonic – supertonic – mediant – subdominant – dominant – subtonic), the tonic of the song is the first note of the scale. The dominant note is the most significant tone of a scale. Its role is to create a feeling of tension and expectation for the upcoming tonic. The dominant of a song is usually the fourth note. It is called so because it is the dominant (dominating) tone of the key.

Hello @websiteee

In think you meant “dominant is the 5th tone.l