What is a Tonality?
The Music Learning Theory Definition

One of the basic tenets of Music Learning Theory is that we learn by contrast.

We don’t learn what something IS, we learn what it is NOT. In life, we would never know what it means to be a decent, moral person if we didn’t have the presence of evil, immoral persons in comparison. We would never understand the concept of bravery fully unless we understood cowardice. 

When we are learning music, then, the same must hold true.

In order to fully understand what major is, we must have something to compare major to.

In order to fully understand what duple meter is, we must have something to compare it to.

In Music Learning Theory, we learn many tonalities and many meters, so the brain can make as many synapses as possible. As children, research shows that the more tonalities and meters we are exposed to, the easier it is to audiate music when we become adults.

As adult musicians, the more tonalities and meters we learn, the better we will be able to aurally discriminate between and amongst tonalities, and, perhaps more importantly, the clearer our understanding, precision, and intonation in major and duple - the prevailing tonality and meter of our culture - will be.

What is a Tonality?

Most amateur musicians play in major, as the majority of popular songs in our culture are in Major

Occasionally, songs begin on a minor chord, but quickly revert to a major key. For example, a typical vi - IV - I - V progression has a minor chord as its first chord, but really isn't in Minor Tonality.

A song, for example, like “Shady Grove” has a minor tonic chord, and in communicating with other musicians, one simply might refer to it as a “minor song.”

The Modes

Musicians who continue to further their studies, perhaps in investigating methods and techniques on how to take a solo, might come across the modes: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

Someone might explain the modes to someone like this: If you play the white notes on the piano from C to C, that’s Ionian. If you play from D to D, that’s Dorian. If you play from E to E, that’s Phrygian.

And while that is true, and is a perfectly fine way to hear the modes, it really is missing the point.

Instead of looking at the modes as scales, it is more beneficial to our musicianship to regard each of the modes as tonal centers, as tonalities.

Tonality Defined

A tonality, then, to quote Dr. Edwin E. Gordon, of Music Learning Theory fame, is “defined by its tonal center, which is called a Resting Tone.” (Gordon, 2011)


Each tonality has a resting tone, a place where the music comes to a logical conclusion. A resting tone has a musical gravitational force.


Think, for example, of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The last phrase is, “And the home…of the...brave.” “Brave” is the resting tone. If we don’t get our resting tone, we are unsatisfied musically.

Organizing The Tonalities

Music Learning Theory classifies and organizes the tonalities in relation to their resting tone. To achieve this, we employ a system of verbal association using tonal solfege.

A moveable-DO system, with a LA-based minor, is the most efficient system to organize the tonalities.

This system is a useful one because the half step relationship between MI and FA, and TI and DO, always remains consistent amongst the tonalities, with the single exception of Harmonic Minor.

So, if you are audiating DO as the resting tone, you are in the tonality of Major (referred to by music theorists as the Ionian mode). If you are audiating RE as the resting tone, you are in the tonality of Dorian. And so on.

DO is Moveable

In addition, it should be pointed out that DO is moveable. That is, we can use any letter name as DO. We can have a C-DO, a Bb-DO, a G-DO, etc. This allows us to superimpose our tonality system in any key. No matter where we put DO, the same relationship of half steps to whole steps remains constant.

The Tonalities as Tonal Centers

If, then, we begin to think about each of the tonalities as tonal centers, rather than as an obscure scale we use only in Jazz improvisation, we will realize that there are characteristic chords - harmonic functions - that accompany each tonality.

These chords ground us in each tonality. In major, for example, our primary chords are I, IV and V, all major chords. Many, many, songs, particularly in folk, rock, blues, and country, only use the I, IV and V chords in varying order. Those chords are the DNA of most songs we hear on the radio.

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About the Author

Andy Mullen is a teacher, folk musician, multi-instrumentalist, recovering songwriter, and lifelong learner. He has taught all levels of students in a number of subjects, and is currently a middle school teacher and curriculum coach in Burlington, Massachusetts. Mr Mullen holds Masters degrees in Music Education and School Administration, as well as certification from the Gordon Institute of Music Learning (GIML) in Elementary General and Early Childhood Music. He is currently entertaining Doctoral scholarships.