Key and the Tonic (or Keynote or Doh)

The tonic (also called the “keynote” or sometimes “doh”) is the most important note in a piece of music. It’s the note which we normally expect a song to finish on (although there are plenty of exceptions!) It’s the note that feels like the destination, where all the other notes are trying to lead back to. 

The tonic is also the first (and last) note in a musical scale – it’s the starting and ending point.

Here is the song “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” written out for you. Click the play button to sing along.

twinkle twinkle little star

The last note of the piece is C. When we sing that final C, the piece sounds finished. This is because C is the “tonic” of the piece. Because this song has a tonic note of C, we say that the “key” of the piece is C. In fact, this is in the key of C major

If a piece is in C major, the majority of the notes in the piece will come from the corresponding scale of C major. The scale of C major is simply all the notes from one C up to the next C, using the white notes on the piano:

c major scale

Look again at the “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” tune above, and notice how all the notes in the melody also exist in the C major scale. A song doesn’t have to only contain the notes from the scale it’s built on, but most of them must come from that scale, otherwise the key won’t be recognisable.

The note C is not the only possible tonic though – in fact, any note at all can be used a tonic note! 

Here is the same tune, but this time starting on F. 

twinkle twinkle little star in F

In order to keep the tune sounding the same, we needed to add a flat to each B, making them into B flats.

This time, the melody is in F, instead of C. The last note is F, and F is the tonic of the piece

Here is the scale of F major. If you sing it, it sounds just like C major, except it’s a bit higher! All major scales, starting on any note, have the same “tune”.

F major scale

Quiz: Can You Identify the Tonic?!

Being able to tune in your ear to the tonic of the piece will really help with your sight reading or being able to hear music in your head, so that’s what we’ll practise next.

Here are some short, UNFINISHED tunes. 

Sing or play each tune, and then decide which note is the tonic. Remember, the tonic is the note that has the strongest pull to it, and which sounds like the basis of all the other notes in the tune. When you find the tonic, it feels like you have arrived home and can relax. The other notes will always feel as if they are in the middle of a journey somewhere!

(Singers: if you find it difficult to locate the tonic, first sing through the melody two or three times, then sing each note very slowly, thinking about whether that note sounds like the keynote of the piece, which the scale would be built up from.)

Click on the light bulb to reveal the answers!

find the tonic
find the tonic
find the tonic
find the tonic

Tip! Whenever you hear some music –  on TV, on the radio, in a lift or while waiting “on hold” on the phone – try to tune your ear to the tonic. The more you practise, the easier it gets! You don’t have to be able to name the tonic (e.g. “G”), just be able to sing it.

If you find you are able to name the tonic note by ear however, you can congratulate yourself on having perfect pitch!