The Gravity of the Tonic

Here’s a fairly deep psychological puzzle for musicians to chew on. Why is it that most pieces of tonal music start and end in the same key?

This has been true, by and large, since at least the time of Bach, and probably for a long time before that. (I’m not an expert on Medieval or Renaissance music.) The norm in Bach’s day, and for more than a hundred years afterward, was for a piece to start in some arbitrary key, modulate up a fifth to the dominant at some point near the middle of the piece, perhaps with a side trip along the way to the relative minor or relative major, and then modulate back to the tonic. The possibility of ending the piece in an entirely unrelated key seems to have been systematically shunned by everybody. Composers just didn’t do it.

They still don’t.

We can point to isolated exceptions in recent times. Barry Manilow made something of a fetish of modulating up by a half-step (and then, perhaps, doing it again), so that a piece that began in C would end in D-flat or D. Other pop songwriters do this too, but not often, perhaps because it feels like a cheap trick. Published ragtime usually ended in the key of the subdominant, but I’ve always been a bit suspicious that publishers may have been trying to save paper. Quite possibly ragtime performers would go back to the A strain after playing the trio. I happen to know of one binary-form movement by Vivaldi that modulates to the subdominant at the double bar rather than the dominant. This is shocking enough … but of course he modulates back to the tonic at the end.

And then there’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. Considered as a single enormous piece, it begins in C and ends in B. But that’s probably not the right way to think about it. In any event, Bach was very fond of numbers that were divisible by three, so he could hardly have added a 25th prelude and fugue in order to get back to C.

The skeleton of tonal music bears an eerie similarity to what Joseph Campbell called the hero’s journey. The hero starts in his home territory, travels outward into a place of mystery and danger, and then returns home triumphant, bearing treasure. This pattern, in turn, seems clearly to be derived from the hunting and foraging expeditions that our ancestors engaged in, as a matter of survival, over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. The men head out, they face danger, and they return with food. The moment of return is of great emotional importance, both to the hunters and to the families they have left waiting in their encampment. That our instincts would respond to such a moment is not even faintly surprising.

What I don’t know is whether this same pattern is found in music from other cultures. Is it specific to the harmonic language of tonal music, or can we see it in the music of Africa, Java, and the Middle East? I’d like to know.

I’m also wondering, what happens if we cast it aside? Would music that never returns to its starting point be less satisfying? Or would it feel open-ended and fresh? I’ve written a few pieces that ended somewhere other than the tonic. It didn’t feel weird to me. But maybe others were bothered by the lack of resolution. I think I want to explore this territory some more. It’s like going over the mountain. I mean, those neolithic Siberians never did return to camp. They crossed the land bridge into Alaska and became Native Americans. Returning to the point where you started seems a bit claustrophobic, a bit predictable.

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One Response to The Gravity of the Tonic

  1. Yonatan says:

    Actually, as a listener I’ve never given it a thought. One of the main reasons it never came into my mind may be that when a piece comes to an end, I don’t really remember what was the key that piece started with.
    Unless I really pay close attention, I can’t really tell. This is true especially if you have many key changes during the piece.
    Why do composers start and end with the same key? That’s a good question, and the possible reasons you mentioned do make sense and may have something to do with it.

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