[Smt-talk] The "Governing tone"

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Sun May 6 06:58:43 PDT 2012

Dear Steve,

I would not be so sure about the truth of your statement that "It is not the tonic that defines a tonality; it is a subdominant harmony followed by a dominant one. If you hear ii-V, or IV-V, or IV-vii, or ii-vii your ear knows where to find the tonic."

First of all, a supposed ii-V may very well be i-IV in melodic minor; IV-V may very well be bVII-I (common place in today's popular music idiom); and ii-vii may very well be iv-ii (dim. or half-dim).

Therefore, generalizations like that are misleading, and I have had arguments with people who have simply accepted your axiom and indiscriminately applied it in analysis without listening to the overall harmonic and melodic structure. Thus wherever they encounter two major triads connected to one another, they immediately label them as IV-V, etc. 

I think it is wiser to say that "tonality could be outlined or hinted on without the physical appearance of the tonic, and in this sense we may witness a tonicization of a key area with evaded tonic". But to say that "it is not the tonic that defines a tonality" is not precise; someone once expressed that thought, we all liked it and started to reiterate it without any critical assessment. I suggest that we do not teach theory like that, but before uttering a definition, we always leave the door open for an exception, so that students know there are no rules in music - only principles, that are constantly being expanded. We must be sensitive to style and context.

Thank you,


Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
School of Music
Texas State University
601 University Drive
San Marcos, Texas 78666

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