Writing songs without using the tonic?

  • 16 Replies
  • 1029 Views

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Elian

  • *
  • Busker
  • *
  • Posts: 9
« on: April 14, 2019, 08:42:16 AM »
Hello Guys,

New guy here. ;D I want to learn songwriting, so I'm challenging myself to write a new, original song for every key I learn to play on the piano. What I've noticed is songs usually start on the tonic which is how many people determine the key by ear, and I was wondering if it's possible to write a song in a key but start and end the verses on notes other than the tonic, or start the song on a chord that doesn't involve the first degree of the scale?

Like, for example, if I were to write a song in C Major, can I start the melody on D, E, or on a note other than C and have the first chord be something like an E minor? Or is using the tonic key (no pun intended) for the song's cohesion?

Boydie

  • *
  • Administrator
  • Stadium Tour
  • *****
  • Posts: 3635
« Reply #1 on: April 14, 2019, 10:23:00 AM »
Welcome to the forum

A song does not need to start or end on the tonic (note or chord) - it doesn’t even need to have it in the song at all

This is a good example of where knowing music theory can help with the creative process (rather than “hinder it” as many people think - ie following “rules” stifles creativity etc.)

Using the tonic is a great way to “resolve” a melody or chord sequence, ie bring it to a natural “end” that satisfies the listener

If we susbscribe to the notion that great songs have a sense of “tension and release” as a method of communicating emotion we can use the tonic for the “release” and conversely, avoiding the use of the tonic (especially at the end of a section) will enhance the tension

This podcast and post may help give you some options/ideas

http://www.songwriterforum.co.uk/index.php?topic=9447.0
To check out my music please visit:

http://soundcloud.com/boydiemusic

Twitter: https://twitter.com/BoydieMusic

Elian

  • *
  • Busker
  • *
  • Posts: 9
« Reply #2 on: April 14, 2019, 10:35:50 AM »
Welcome to the forum

A song does not need to start or end on the tonic (note or chord) - it doesn’t even need to have it in the song at all

This is a good example of where knowing music theory can help with the creative process (rather than “hinder it” as many people think - ie following “rules” stifles creativity etc.)

Using the tonic is a great way to “resolve” a melody or chord sequence, ie bring it to a natural “end” that satisfies the listener

If we susbscribe to the notion that great songs have a sense of “tension and release” as a method of communicating emotion we can use the tonic for the “release” and conversely, avoiding the use of the tonic (especially at the end of a section) will enhance the tension

This podcast and post may help give you some options/ideas

http://www.songwriterforum.co.uk/index.php?topic=9447.0

Thank you for the explanation and for the link you provided! :D

Yes, I knew the role the tonic plays in a song (resolving tension and bringing everything back to home base), but I was unsure whether starting a song on anything else but the tonic affects it in some sort of way. Now I have the peace of mind I was looking for.

Will definitely check out the podcast you recommended, thanks again for that!

MartynRich

  • *
  • Stadium Tour
  • *****
  • Posts: 1076
    • Personal website
« Reply #3 on: April 14, 2019, 12:30:35 PM »
First test of any song - does it sound good?

As for the rules, well they are there for a reason and it´s good to know the basics at the very least, and use them a lot. However, also make sure you listen to more off the wall stuff...music is for experimenting with...here is a great example from @tboswell in a comp we ran a few years back:

http://www.songwriterforum.co.uk/index.php?topic=11517.msg108436#msg108436

Elian

  • *
  • Busker
  • *
  • Posts: 9
« Reply #4 on: April 14, 2019, 01:53:20 PM »
First test of any song - does it sound good?

 ;D That is exactly how I guide myself through music composition, being a novice to songwriting and having no one to hold my hand.

As for the rules, well they are there for a reason and it´s good to know the basics at the very least, and use them a lot. However, also make sure you listen to more off the wall stuff...music is for experimenting with...

Precisely, I was trying to stay clear of the realm of tonal music and aim for something more unconventional that does not use the tonic as a gravitational pull, but without necessarily imprinting too much tension or anticipation to the song. Just wanted to see if it's common practice or if I'd end up offending the music gods.  ;D

adamfarr

  • *
  • Stadium Tour
  • *****
  • Posts: 2057
    • SongExpresso
« Reply #5 on: April 14, 2019, 04:49:35 PM »
Hey there - very interesting topic. My feeling is that it’s quite common to avoid the tonic in verses, but a bit rarer to avoid it in choruses (especially as a resolution). But I’ll quite happily write a progression without worrying about the key - as the guys said, if it sounds good then go no further. If I’m stuck then sometimes then I will think - ok if the key is x then what other chords would be on that menu? Or - the melody calls for a B what chords in this key contain a B? To give some options that maybe I hadn’t thought of. So I’d say these are “tools rather than rules”!

Happy writing, anyhow!

Elian

  • *
  • Busker
  • *
  • Posts: 9
« Reply #6 on: April 14, 2019, 05:34:38 PM »
Hey there - very interesting topic. My feeling is that it’s quite common to avoid the tonic in verses, but a bit rarer to avoid it in choruses (especially as a resolution). But I’ll quite happily write a progression without worrying about the key - as the guys said, if it sounds good then go no further.

Thanks for the helpful insight! Yeah, I definitely wasn't planning on completely removing the tonic from the melody and chord progression because I want to have that feeling of coming back home base somewhere within the song. I was simply curious if I can be a bit adventurous and start on a completely different note.

I'm a bit more confident I can now after reading all your replies and I will definitely experiment and let my ears guide me.  :)

Dogmax

  • *
  • Guest
« Reply #7 on: April 14, 2019, 09:52:40 PM »
First of all warm welcome to you Elian i'm enjoying this, in the on and off thirty odd years i been writing lyrics/songs i have never heard of the 'tonic' i had to google it and strange but i'm liking what i'm reading  8)

Looking forward to reading and hearing more from you Elian   8)

Elian

  • *
  • Busker
  • *
  • Posts: 9
« Reply #8 on: April 15, 2019, 09:06:04 AM »
First of all warm welcome to you Elian i'm enjoying this, in the on and off thirty odd years i been writing lyrics/songs i have never heard of the 'tonic' i had to google it and strange but i'm liking what i'm reading  8)

Looking forward to reading and hearing more from you Elian   8)

Thanks for the warm welcome and I'm glad you are enjoying this topic!  :)

I know some people call it "key note" or just simply "key", but that to me is confusing so I stick to the way I was taught music theory and call it a tonic.  ;D

tboswell

  • *
  • Platinum Album
  • ****
  • Posts: 683
« Reply #9 on: April 15, 2019, 03:58:25 PM »
As far as I know the tonic actually commonly not used in chord progressions for modern pop music.
Using the tonic forces a cadence and feeling of conclusions and arrival as pointed our by others. So by not using it you can prolong the feelings in the song, keeping the tension throughout.

It's harder to loop round if you have reached a harmonic conclusion in the tonic chord. By not using it you can keep going and going...

...that's not a rule, all rules are there to be broken if it sounds good to break them  :)

shadowfax

  • *
  • Stadium Tour
  • *****
  • Posts: 2314
  • Singer songwriter
« Reply #10 on: April 16, 2019, 03:20:00 PM »
Just read through this thread and my head is spinning ;D got absolutely no idea what your all talking about ??? what's a tonal chord? what's a tonic? I never know what key my songs are in...

regards from that idiot called shadowfax ;D

Elian

  • *
  • Busker
  • *
  • Posts: 9
« Reply #11 on: April 17, 2019, 09:00:15 AM »
As far as I know the tonic actually commonly not used in chord progressions for modern pop music.

Hmm... I have a bunch of modern pop music scores in front of me stating the exact opposite. ;D ;D ;D

It's harder to loop round if you have reached a harmonic conclusion in the tonic chord. By not using it you can keep going and going...

...that's not a rule, all rules are there to be broken if it sounds good to break them  :)

Yes, I agree, and that is the conclusion I reached as well, so thank you for enforcing that. Lately I've just been sitting down at the piano, experimenting as I learn to play each key, letting my ears guide me through the chord progressions based on the mood I'm in and how well the sound conveys the message I want to put out there rather than the music theory I know.

I do believe rules are made for a reason, but as you said, if you can break them without compromising your sound, then that's fine.  :)

Elian

  • *
  • Busker
  • *
  • Posts: 9
« Reply #12 on: April 17, 2019, 09:04:53 AM »
Just read through this thread and my head is spinning ;D got absolutely no idea what your all talking about ???

Boy, don't I feel like that myself sometimes...  ;D

I'm sure you're doing a brilliant job without knowing much of this bland terminology. Sometimes a good set of ears is just all you need.  :)


cowparsleyman

  • *
  • Stadium Tour
  • *****
  • Posts: 1111
  • What would you rather be or a wasp?
    • Cowparsleyman on Soundcloud
« Reply #14 on: May 09, 2019, 07:38:44 AM »
Put another way, writing the dots helps you and others play the thing, and to interpret your ideas, so if you want to write it without ever hitting the obvious tonic, you'd have to keep changing the Key sigs, making it harder to read/play, you also change the obvious time sigs to make it harder as well, didn't Prokofiev do that sort of thing? I think you know what I mean, but generally there's a real desire by our ears to have that foundation of the tonic, which acts as that big heavy base like the base you put you garden umbrella in.