Tonality - Characteristics and Features

Characteristics and Features

The tonal system prevalent in what we know as the common-practice period is usually known as major-minor, or functional tonality. In functional tonality, chords have a harmonic or tonal function, which we can define as the relationship of a chord with the other chords in the key, and especially its relationship with the tonic. We usually label the specific functions of chords with Roman numerals. The basic harmonic functions are tonic (I), dominant (V), and predominant (IV).

David Cope (1997,) considers key, consonance and dissonance (or relaxation and tension, respectively), and hierarchical relationships to be the three most basic concepts in tonality.

Carl Dahlhaus (1990,) lists the characteristics schemata of tonal harmony, "typified in the compositional formulae of the 16th and early 17th centuries," as the "complete cadence" (vollständige Kadenz): I-IV-V-I; I-IV-I-V-I; or I-ii-V-I; the circle of fifths progression: I-IV-vii°-iii-vi-ii-V-I; and the "major-minor parallelism": minor: v-i-VII-III equals major: iii-vi-V-I; or minor: III-VII-i-v equals major: I-V-vi-iii.

Other scales or modes are often introduced for variety within the context of a major-minor tonal system without disturbing the diatonic nature of the work. The major scale predominates, and the melodic minor contains nine pitches (seven with two alterable). The seven basic notes of a scale are notated in the key signature, and whether the piece is in the major or minor key is either stated in the title or implied in the piece (there is a major and minor key for each key signature).

Other important scales include the blues scale, the whole tone scale, the pentatonic scale, and the chromatic scale. As these are not the major or minor diatonic scales, music written exclusively with them is not tonal by the definition above.

Chords are built primarily from notes of a diatonic scale, or secondarily from chromatic notes treated as variations or embellishments of the basic scale. The identity of the scale is important, as the size of the steps between notes are used to determine the system of chord relationships.

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