Clarification on use of the Tonic in Melody vs Chord Progression

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  • Busker
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« on: May 05, 2018, 07:26:29 AM »
Hi All,
   They say that to write good songs a songwriter should learn the rules and 'throw them away'. Well, I did study the rules of music theory and I felt really quite comfortable with the logic of how it all fitted together. I was particularly at home with the idea of a chord progression beginning on the Tonic and ending on the Tonic of the key in which the song was written. Progressions in actual written music in my possession follow this pattern and I was quite happy to work with my own progressions in building a song.

Now a spanner has been thrown into the works. I turned my attention to melody writing and I watched a YouTube video on how to write a melody. The video was from an established music school and the lady doing the course certainly seemed to know what she was talking about. She began by showing that an initial framework should be established for a complete musical idea that begins with the Tonic and ends Tonic. This felt familiar to me from my work with chord progressions so I was happy to go along with this theory.

Then I tried putting this into practice. It works of course, but when I look at the vast majority of song sheets I have in my possession, very few melody notes actually begin on the Tonic of the key!

I am confused and I am hoping somebody might shed some light on it.

This is what I THINK might be the cause of the confusion:

If a tune is to be unaccompanied (no chord progression) then it SHOULD begin and end with the Tonic.

If the tune IS accompanied then it is for the chord progression to begin on and end on the Tonic. The starting melody note can be ANY of the notes of the first chord. This is how I see most sheet music anyway.

Perhaps I'm reading to much into all this theory, but the theory does work for me so I would be grateful for any clarification.

The video is at




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« Reply #1 on: May 05, 2018, 09:16:51 AM »
Hi Jonel

I don't have any formal training in songwriting (but I have written many songs) so my input here is mainly based on experience rather than training (if that makes sense?).
But I do have some training in playing instruments, and was always told that when you take a solo, you want to avoid starting on the tonic, and I generally think the same can be true for the melody. Had a quick review of a few of my songs and it seems my default starting point is the fifth, although obviously all sorts of starting points get used.

I think even unaccompanied melodies don't have to start on the tonic (I tried "Oh Christmas Tree" and whilst it has the tonic as the second note, it starts on a 5th, and that can often be sung unaccompanied), so I think, from watching the video, it's positioned as a good starting point if you are not sure how to approach a melody, but I would say she is over-stressing the importance of using it as the first note.

But I'm all for ending on the tonic! (perhaps with a gin in it :) )



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« Reply #2 on: May 05, 2018, 09:47:53 AM »
Hi Jonel

It's been a while since my Theory was in shape, but I can remember a bunch of stuff, and how I felt about it.

You don't need to begin nor end on the tonic, to make a good melody line, many really famous players can't read the dots, not what an interrupted cadance is. Can you imaging Hendrix saying to Noel Redding, "Man, I think you need to play an alberti bass on that one, dude..." In fact on many recording hendrix play the bass himself, while Noel stood outside the studio with a fag on.

So many great songs can be theortically analysed post recording, and it's amazing to hear how they have been constructed, I heard one bloke dissect A Day in the Life by the Beatles, and boy was it complex...

One of the reasons I learned to read music was so I could write down and not forget my compositions, but a benefit I didnb't expect was to to appreciate structurally what was going on and what would fit when I'm soloing/improvising.

Back to your question...

Your notes do not need to be in the starting chord.

For example if you start off a blues number with a regular C E G, your Tune could start with a Bflat (the 7th) of the chord of C7, so effectively you are extending the chord on which you start, or a 9th, 13th etc. depending on the colour you are after.

Hope this helps




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« Reply #3 on: May 05, 2018, 10:17:06 AM »
The only "rule" you need is:

If it sounds right - it IS right

Music theory is fantastic for explaining why something sounds right (or explain why something doesn't sound "right") but there are very few "rules" that can be applied without exception

Starting and ending a melody on the tonic is simply a device/technique used to give the melody a strong "tonal centre" - i.e. To establish the key of the song - e.g. Start the chord progression on the "1" chord and then start the melody on the root note

However, there are a gazillion examples where neither happen - and it could even be considered "cliche" or too simplistic to do so (which really depends on context - e.g. This could be used to great effect in a nursery rhyme or a pop hook that you want to be simple and memorable but may not sound so good in a "sophisticated" emotional ballad)

These are some examples of where the "rule" can be applied or ignored - it is all dependent on context IMHO
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  • Busker
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« Reply #4 on: May 05, 2018, 10:29:45 AM »
Thanks for your very helpful relies Busker and Solo Gig. I agree wholeheartedly to both replies. I wouldn't have thought too much more about this issue until I watched that video.
My only reason for mentioning a chord note at the start is that, if there is no pickup notes then a non-chord note on the first beat would sound quite dissonant (unless that is what was required). If note is a pickup note then there would be no clash and so any other diatonic note would do.

But, you both have confirmed my own thoughts and my initial statement about learning the rules and then throwing the book away actually holds true. The theory provides of a least a start and a framework to proceed.


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  • Busker
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« Reply #5 on: May 05, 2018, 11:47:20 AM »
Thanks Boydie, your reply was largely my observation of existing music and prompted me to ask the question. I'm so glad I did though because I can now feel much less constrained in my approach to the melody creation process. The theory can guide to those places where the 'rules can be broken' to my advantage with regard to sound quality.



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« Reply #6 on: June 04, 2018, 06:03:07 PM »
The first thing this made me think of was modes, if it even fits here. My guitar teacher told me I was being to much in the head trying to learn all of that stuff and to go by feel. Truth is, I needed both, one to understand what worked and why, and one to complete the circle with embellishment. Now, I just need to get it all into practice and see where it goes from there.

I just picked up a great deal on a course at Udemy.com that gives away simple gems in songwriting that never would come to mind for me. The biggest was given away in the guy's free video intro as his hook. It worked on me. It goes like this: the three foundations of music are rhythm, melody and harmony. Choose one instrument for each, lay that down and go from there. The song leads the music, what sounds good and what works, sort of like a painting. You have to get the foundation or the background down before filling in all of the pretty details. It sounds so simple, but it hit me like an angel of light in a dark corner.

Everybody writes differently, but all of the information I'm getting is pointing toward letting the song dictate the sound and letting the sound carry the story, a concept that is directing me toward resources that give you the foundation to fast-forward into the proper musical context while experimenting around the edges to get it just right, something those musically gifted probably do intuitively.

Does that all sound like a bunch of horse hockey? I've barely written any songs and have spent a lot of time collecting the basic underpinnings to get started. It hasn't been a molehill to climb. I guess I'll find out soon enough how well it will serve me.


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« Reply #7 on: June 07, 2018, 01:38:21 PM »
Certainly there is no rule about *having* to start on the tonic and end on the tonic, for either chords or melody.

Probably, most of your melodies don't start on the tonic because it can often simply sound boring to have both the accompaniment and melody start in the same place.
If the tune has no accompaniment , there is still no 'rule' that it should start on the tonic.

Moon River is a nice simple example. Its' in the key of C, the first chord is C (tonic) and the first ('Moon') is G, the dominant....
That pattern happens a lot.

Different  example - Sufjan Stevens Oscar nominated song 'Mystery Of Love'. The first chord is the sub-dominant (C) I believe and the first note sung is the third - the mediant (of the key not the chord), this is a very beautiful and melancholic arrangement since the first note when compared to the first chord is the 'leading tone' (the major 7th) of the first chord...

There is also no reason you cannot start on the tonic if you wish, Somewhere Over the Rainbow being the most famous example.
IMO, more important than where you start or end are the 'cadences' or 'resolutions' you have. This is what generates the feeling of movement and 'resolving' (hence the name) any chord progression into something nice. Here is a quick link about cadences https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cadence_(music)
« Last Edit: June 07, 2018, 02:44:44 PM by Ramshackles »