Tonality guides note choice

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I think tonality is something to be understood ASAP, even as a beginner. It is a simple concept. It’s about making the listener aware that some notes are more important than others, with one note in particular standing out in his or her mind. This awareness may be brief before something else replaces it with some other set of notes, or it may last for a section of a tune, or the whole tune, depending on genre.

This awareness is created by your choice of intervals that each note makes with the one note you want to stand out as the most important. This is the tonal centre. Normally we are using a scale, like the major scale, in which case the tonal centre is the scale’s tonic (first note).

Notice I said “intervals” … each interval is a pair of notes, and in this case one of those notes is the tonal centre. Why is this important? Because the sounds we hear are relative to whatever our note choice is for that centre. If we change that note (maybe the singer is having a hard time), the intervals must be maintained for our intended music. On guitar, this can be accomplished by using the same interval shapes (usually embodied in chords or scales in some area of the neck), and shifting these as needed.


Piano and fretted guitar are built to create twelve different notes per octave, each a semitone  apart.  Western instruments produce some number of octaves. Suppose we choose E as our tonal centre.  Then starting at the lowest pitched E (the open 6th string), frets 0 (the nut) to fret 11 on that string produce the first octave of notes we can use to create a “tonality whose tonal centre is E”.  Frets 12 (also an E)  to 23 on that string provide the next octave’s worth of notes, and because of the way the guitar is built, we can get roughly four octaves worth of notes across all six strings.  In total we have roughly 48 notes available to create a tonality centred around the twelve note names, E or F or F# and so on.  Depending on our choice of tonal centre, we can work with these 48 notes, but emphasise them differently, which is what we’ll look at now.

You’ll learn what tonality is, and how to create it, using notes at two or three specific distances (semitones) from the tonal centre.  These notes are present in all our diatonic scales.  You’ll learn that other distances are typically used to set up expectations in the listener and impart a specific sound flavour.


Tonal centre, perfect 5th. major 3rd or minor 3rd.

The tonal centre is our choice.

The next most important note is the one that forms an interval of 7 semitones above the tonal centre in a given octave … theory calls this the perfect 5th, that rock guitarists love in power chords. The next most important one forms an interval of 4 or 3 semitones above the tonal centre, the major 3rd and minor 3rd respectively. This choice determines if the music will have a “major” or “minor” feel to it. Whatever these notes are (for the tonal centre and 3,4, and 7 semitones above it), they can be used in any octave. Rock and blues wil often use both the major and minor 3rd, but one of them is given more aural attention (typically the major 3rd, or the minor 3rd being bent somewhere near the major 3rd).

If G is our choice, then the lowest G is found at the 3rd fret on the bass string.  The notes at fret 0 to 2 (E, F and F#) are considered to be at the “top” of the octave below, but most of that octave’s notes can’t be created.

Major and minor triad

For those of you that know about major and minor triads, this triad, major or minor, rooted at the tonal centre we choose, provides the important notes for tonality. The point about this group of three notes is that they form a very stable sound … restful … maybe boring if we stick with using them too long without change. They don’t stir upour emotions!

Remaining four scale notes are used to create the second level of importance

After the above-mentioned three notes, we have nine others left in an octave. Here is where we can play some serious games with the emotions, as they do make us want to hear these intervals replaced, some more than others. Usually, four of these come from a 7-note diatonic scale, such as major or mixolydian or natural minor. These scale notes impart the particular scale type, but they don’t all have to be used, if you want to deliberately make the music a bit ambiguous.  These are at the secondary level of aural importance. The remaining five notes, the chromatic non-scale notes, are the least important, but great for ear-candy … used fleetingly, then gone.

How do we create these different levels of awareness?

If every note had the same duration, then one way would be to use the tonic triads notes the most, the other four scale notes less, and the chromatic notes the least.  But what counts is how much of the time, in total, the tonic triad notes are audible.  So they could occur less frequently, but use longer durations.  Also, transitions from silence to music, and back, are places we are more aware of, so we can use this to start or end a run of notes.  It is also very common to precede the tonal  centre note by the perfect 5th, starting a verse off, with the tonal centre sounding on beat 1, a strong beat.


If the note is at the peak of a melody, it will stand out more, or at the lowest point.

Rhythmic placement

Rhythmic placement plays a big part in ramping up, or ramping down, our awareness of a note, and hence in what it does with our emotions.

Try this …

For now, I’ve written this epic piece for you to try.  I wasn’t think of scales at all.  Just different intervals that pull at our ears, our emotions, in different ways,

I’ve chosen E as the tonal centre as it makes it simple to play. As you play it, when something makes you whince, remember that fret (hence interval).  The melody line is all on the 5th (A) string). That open string is 5 semitones above the open E I’m using. So the 2nd fret on the A string creates a note 2 semitones higher than the open A, and hence 7 semitones (5+2) semitones above the open E (the tonal centre).

So, give it a go, and if you like, post in our Facebook group which intervals (semitones) are making you wanting to hear change.

I’ve deliberately avoided the major or minor 3rd above E, for nearly all of the example, to demonstrate that tonality is still implied by the perfect 5th.






You’ve seen how we can emphasise notes that make intervals of 0 (coincident), 7, and 4 or 3 semitones with the chosen tonal centre that we want our listeners to become aware of.  The choice of 4 or 3 semitones determines if we hear a major or minor flavour to the overall sound.  The remaining scale notes qualify a specific major or minor sound (major, mixolydian, minor, dorian …).  The overall duration that notes are sounded for, along with their rhythmic placement, determines how aware we are of them.  As does starting or ending a run of notes.  As does if they are in a different register to their surrounding notes.

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