Tonic in Music: Definition & Overview

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Instructor: Philip Moody

Dr. Moody has taught music in the collegiate and high school levels and has a Doctorate of Musical Arts

The tonic pitch in music is what we refer to as the beginning and ending note of the scale used to compose a piece of music. In this lesson, we'll learn more about tonic pitch and what relationship the tonic pitch has to the key of the piece.


I sing this in the key of B-flat major. You might have heard a singer say this when she or he was talking with another musician who was going to perform a piece with her or him. The idea of a piece being in a certain key tells a musician what specific notes to play. The key refers to the pitch that the scale begins on to create the full scale of eight pitches. When listening to the music, many people hum a certain pitch that the piece seems to center around, which is often the tonic pitch! This tonic pitch is the beginning and ending note of the scale that is used to compose a piece of music; it's not only a center for the compositional process, but it's also the pitch name that is the key.


Music composed in the Western world from about 1650 to the present has mainly been developed based on either a major or minor key. The tonic is the same for each of these: For the key of C major, the tonic is C, and for the key of C minor, the tonic is also C. The same holds true on the reverse side: The tonic of G is the same tonic with either the key of G major or the key of G minor.

We've been talking a bit about keys, and we've used the terms major and minor when we refer to a key. But what's the difference? Well, whether the piece is major or minor will determine the overall feeling of the piece. For instance, a major key is more common and creates a rather happy or celebratory tone: A good amount of pop music is in a major key. A minor key creates a bit more of a melancholic and sad mood: Songs of sorrow and lament are normally written in a minor key, such as the many country ballads about love and loss.

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