Music Tonality
Thomas Christensen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0252


Tonality is a ubiquitous term in musical discourse as indispensable as it is obfuscating. Typically, the term tonality (and more generally, “tonal music”) references the pitch-centric “common-practice” language of the transposable major and minor key system within which most classical music has been composed in the West from at least the mid-17th century through the early 20th century. Many theorists have highlighted certain empirical features of melody or harmony as being particularly characteristic or even essential to the tonal system (e.g., the content and structure of the diatonic scale, hierarchies of scale degrees and chord functions, or the cadence in defining or stabilizing tonal centers). At the same time, many theorists have emphasized the psychological power of tonal music for evoking strong affective responses from listeners by arousing strong expectations of tonal behavior that may be realized, delayed, or even thwarted. Clearly, then, any study of tonality needs to take into account the varying and often conflicting ways the concept is understood and used by given writers. But the concept of tonality has also been useful to musicologists for constructing evolutionary models of musical development while also describing—and contrasting—other musical styles and historical languages of music that do not always follow the norms of Western “common-practice” music. Particularly important in this regard is the chromatic language of many late-19th- and early-20th-century composers that is thought to have extended, deviated from, or even negated normative tonal syntax. Here Wagner’s use of chromaticism and extended modulation is usually cited as the progenitor of this process, one that is seen by many of these same observers to have led in the 20th century to the gradual dissolution of classical tonality in favor of a non-hierarchic kind of pitch organization, termed by neologisms such as “suspended tonality,” “post-tonality,” and perhaps most conventionally, “atonality.” Of course, tonality did not pass away; it continued to thrive as a common musical language through the 20th century, particularly in popular music idioms, even as it evolved into numerous dialects and hybrid forms within our globalized and digitalized musical marketplace. Yet the persistence of this myth of tonal evolution and devolution in Western histories of music suggests how high the stakes are in defining the content and perimeters of tonality. Tonality seems to be simultaneously an object and an ideal that continues to exert unparalleled influence—and not a little anxiety—to this day.

General Overviews

As suggested in the introduction of this bibliography, tonality has been defined and applied in many differing ways. Dahlhaus 1990 contains probably the most comprehensive and critically acute historical dissection of this problem, with Dahlhaus 1980 offering a radically compressed version of his main arguments. Hyer 2001 brilliantly analyzes the various historical uses—and abuses—of tonality as a musicological talisman over the past two centuries. His essay is particularly good in alerting us to the many metaphors and narrative genres by which the development (and devolution) of tonality is characterized. Beiche 1992 is valuable for providing full citations of the many ways tonality (or its linguistic variants) have been used by authors since it was first coined by Choron in 1810. Gut 1976 from the same collection traces the terms “tonic,” “dominant,” and “subdominant” over several centuries of usage—each of the three terms critical to our contemporary understanding and teaching of tonality. Christensen 2019 explores the first comprehensive theorization of musical tonality in the writings of the 19th-century Belgian writer François-Joseph Fétis. Moreno 2004 is a more philosophically-oriented study that is nonetheless highly revealing for the epistemological underpinnings of tonality claimed by four major theorists.

  • Beiche, Michael. “Tonalität.” In Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie. Edited by Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht. Weisbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner, 1992.

    An indispensable and exhaustive inventory of many varied historical uses of the term tonality and its linguistic variants. All primary citations are untranslated; commentary is in German.

  • Christensen, Thomas. Stories of Tonality in the Age of François-Joseph Fétis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226627083.001.0001

    A cultural and intellectual history of tonality in the writings of François-Joseph Fétis and their reception in the 19th century. Tonality is seen as a theoretical construct born of anxiety and alterity for European musicians who thought—and argued—about a variety of musical repertoires, be they contemporary European musics of the stage, concert hall, or church, folk songs from the provinces, microtonal scale systems of Arabic and Indian music, or the medieval and Renaissance music whose notational traces were just beginning to be deciphered by scholars.

  • Dahlhaus, Carl. “Tonality.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Vol. 19. Edited by Stanley Sadie, 51–55. London: Macmillan, 1980.

    An abbreviated summary of some of the primary arguments contained in Dahlhaus 1990.

  • Dahlhaus, Carl. Studies on the Origin of Harmonic Tonality. Translated by Robert Gjerdingen. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

    A classic study. Originally published in 1968 as Untersuchungen über die Entstehung der harmonischen Tonalität. Dahlhaus explores features of the tonal systems of important theorists from the 18th and 19th centuries while also examining the challenges in identifying nascent traces of tonality in the music and theories of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

  • Gut, Serge. “Dominante-Tonika-Subdominante.” In Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie. Edited by Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht. Weisbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner, 1976.

    Traces the usage of three terms critical to the functional theorization of tonality over several centuries and languages. All citations are untranslated and commentary is in German.

  • Hyer, Brian. “Tonality.” In Grove Music Online, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.28102

    A sophisticated analysis of the conceptual and historical peregrinations of the concept. Hyer is particularly good in showing how implicated tonality is within various narratives of music evolution that still seem to predominate in musicology today. Reprinted in Thomas Christensen, ed., The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. 726–752.

  • Moreno, Jairo. Musical Representations, Subjects, and Objects. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

    Moreno concentrates upon four key founders of harmonic theory—Zarlino, Descartes, Rameau, and Weber—and explores in successive chapters how each contributes to the emergence of a modern “listener,” one who becomes ever attentive to (and indeed, helps to construct) the dynamics of harmonic tonality.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.