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Lesson 27 - The Tonic

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Previous page: Lesson 26 - Power Chords Next page: Lesson 28 - Top Note Chords (voice leading)

Lessons of The Week was a series of guitar lessons circulated in "News", in the pre-web days of the Internet. 29 lessons were written before it died out, and I happende to write the first three. They represent a little bit of internet history, as they may have been the first guitar lessons written for the internet.

The lessons were all written in txt format - they were written around the same time as Tim Berners Lee were sitting in Switzerland specifing the first version of html. I have converted them to html, and may have added a few links from the lessons.

Lesson: 27
Title: The Tonic
Level: Beginner
Style: Heavy Metal Rhythm
Instructor: Ky MacPherson

Hey kids, today I will introduce you to a very important concept in music ... the tonic. And although we are focusing on heavy metal in this lesson, it is essential to understand the concept of the tonic to write any kind of music.

Let's start right off with some musical examples! The following examples are in the key of E minor.

      I   I   I  vii        I

Notice how there is a sense of finality after the final chord. This is caused by moving to the root chord, the E5 chord. The root chord is also called the "tonic." Compare that sound with the following sequence of chords:

      I          vii        II

Notice how much different the second example sounds. It would sound very irregular to end a song this way, because this sequence of chords leaves a lot of unresolved "tension." How do you resolve this tension? By moving to the tonic, of course!

But it is important to understand that this tension can be useful.

      I          vii       iii          II        vi 
D|----------------0----|----5---5---5---4----|----5---5---5--  etc.

Maintaining the tension gives the song a sense of movement. And a song without movement (and thus tension) would be a very boring song! Now I hope you have a grasp of the special properties of the tonic.

Now let me introduce you to another special chord: the dominant. The dominant is the V chord, the chord whose root is a perfect fifth above the tonic. Resolving to the dominant also gives a sense of finality, although not as strong as resolving to the tonic.

      I           vi        V

Listen to this example, and then listen to the one at the beginning of the lesson again.

Now for some general rules:

1. A song should begin and end on the tonic.

2. The song should end by hitting the tonic on the first beat of a measure.

3. The lowest voice in a song (i.e. rhythm guitar for heavy metal) should end the song on the tonic that is the lowest note played by that instrument in the song. In simpler terms, you should end the song by moving DOWN to the tonic.

Of course, as with any rules, these are commonly broken. However, if you want to write a song that sounds good, you should keep these rules in mind.

I am using the concepts of tonic and dominant in the context of chords, but it is important to realize that these properties also hold true for single notes. Thus a guitar solo should also begin and end on the tonic.

Now it is time to see these ideas in action! We are now going to examine some excerpts from a song called "Evil Dead" by the group Death. I am not suggesting that you rush out and purchase a copy of this song ... it is not necessary that you have heard it before. I chose to include this song because: (1) it is simple, and (2) it illustrates the principles I have presented in this lesson. The song is in the key of G minor.

Tune down: (6)=D

The song begins with the cool G-minor lick I gave you way back in my first lesson being played over the progression:

       I              vii              vi              V

Notice that both guitars begin on the tonic. The progression I-vii-vi-V has a nice sound, and you will find it in other songs as well. Now we will skip all the way to the end of the song:


The song also ends on the tonic, moving down. Notice how the tonic is avoided, but the dominant is heavily used in the measures just preceding the end of the song.

I hope you found my lessons to be entertaining, and I hope you learned something too! This is my last lesson for now, although maybe in the future I will cover some more advanced topics. Take care, and Good luck!

-- Ky MacPherson (KMACPHE1@UA1VM.UA.EDU) "To me, Gorbachev always looks like a man who just had his accordion stolen" - Lazlo Toth (I am currently moving so don't expect a quick response!)

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Previous page: Lesson 26 - Power Chords Next page: Lesson 28 - Top Note Chords (voice leading)