Tonal Trends Pop Music Theory for Songwriters

Songwriting and Music Theory Vlog youtube-icon twitter-icon facebook guitarate guitar curriculum

Guitarist looking for something to play or teach? Visit our other site:

Get Updates:

Click Here for a List of the latest Songwriting and Music Theory Vlogs

"Tonality Series Part 1"

  Alright—So, if we’re gonna try and Spot Tonal Trends, the first thing we gotta know is: what in the world ‘Tonal” means in the first place!

  So: What is “Tonality?”

  Well, the first sentence on the Wikipedia Page for ‘Tonality’ is, quote:

  “Tonality is a system/language of music in which specific hierarchical pitch relationships are based on a key "center", or tonic--that is, on hierarchical scale degree relationships.”

  And if that was just like woosh-woosh, what the holy crap you talking about? Let me translate: all it means, is:

  “In music there’s different notes, and, some notes like each other more than they like other notes.” That’s it.

  Why? Cause most notes are different from each other. How? Cause they have different pitches. What are pitches?

  --Let me explain it this way—

  Everything that makes a sound vibrates through the air to your ears at different speeds, or different: frequencies, and then we hear the pitch in our ears (if we're lucky enough to have ears that is.)

  Or, like if you’re a fishy in the deep blue sea, the sound waves travel through water.

  But I’m not so sure if sound travels through dirt cause like worms don’t have ears, but I mean there’s earthquakes, so it probably does.

  Except, not through lead, cause Superman can’t see through lead…

  Anywayz: Anything that makes these sound vibrations can be thought of as being on a spectrum from either: Larger and Looser vibrations, or Tinier and Tighter.

The larger or looser something is, WITHIN THE PHYSICAL REALITY OF OUR UNIVERSE, the SLOWER its vibration speed, and so the lower the sound’s pitch is. Conversely: the tinier or tighter something is, the faster it vibrates, and so the sound’s pitch--is higher.

It’s like with guitars or violins we think of how skinny and tight the string is right?

Like here check it out: tiny and tight makes a high pitch…but down on the fatter strings: loser and lower equals lower pitches.

  Or like, with drums we think of how wide and loose they are or vice versa, like tympanis- -they’re all wide and loose and it’s like bahm-bahm boom-boom, row, Sparticus--guys!

  Or even like, on the tinier side, your palm’s like a drum when you clap, but it’s tiny and tight compared to a tympani, so when you clap--it’s got a faster frequency and a higher pitch!

  With other instruments it can also be about how long or short--what you put that sound through is, like tubes right?

  Think of saxophones: like, soprano sax is only this long, and it’s high pitched!

  Like Kenny G, oh Kenny G…and on the other end of the tube spectrum you got the baritone sax, and it’s like, first it swerves up here, then it goes way down here, and loops back up and outwards and is like “huh-huh-hunky honk barry white.”

  It’s the same with trumpets and tubas! like trumpets--smaller tubing higher pitch. And tubas, big tubing low pitch!

  So yeah, that’s the long and short of how come some sounds can be different by having different frequencies and different pitches.

  And we’re almost there, but before we get to Consonance & Dissonance, we have to mention about how these “pitches,” become notes.

  Well, that’s mostly us human-peoples’ fault. See, a while ago, humans figured out we could play some of these pitches together, in ways we thought sounded cool.

  Turns out these cool sounding pitches, now considered notes, sounded better to our ears, because they were Organized Mathematically, or “Harmonically” as we say in the biz.

  I don’t know why we don’t just say ‘organized’. I guess because ‘harmonically’ sounds better, I guess, and it’s nice to have your own word--more on all that in a minute.

  Also, in another video later on we’ll look at how pitches can be organized not only by their pitch frequencies, but also by how they can be organized mathematically in time, otherwise known as the concept of Rhythm, which we’ll skip for now, because it deserves it’s whole own video.

  For now, all you need to know is that a “note” is created more by how we humans organize, play, then hear, then interpret pitches and their rhythms in our human brains, than by what the pitches are themselves. It’s like: think of how we don’t consider raindrops falling on tin roofs “music.”

  All the little raindrops, they have sounds, frequencies, and pitches, but they’re not organized mathematically or harmonically, so they’re not what we call “Tonal”, and so it’s not ‘music,’ unless you’re like a hippy or something and then OK, I guess it’s music, but for us right now, nah, it’s not.

  Or, um--like the parts of the string on the other side of the guitar nut here.

  These pitches aren’t organized in any way either, so they’re not really notes, they’re just pitches, and that’s why no one ever tries to write a tonal song on this part of the guitar.

  Cool, well thanks for staying with me, because we’re finally here: Consonance and Dissonance.

  What we’re gonna talk about now, is: What happens when more than one of these cool sounding ‘notes’ are played at the same time?

  Why do some of these human-brain organized Notes mix super well, why do some mix just kinda sorta well, and why do some not mix well at all?

  To start the answer, let’s imagine we’re a like at a Junior-High Dance, and all the dancers are notes—and over here, this one note goes up to this other note and is like hey I like your frequencies, and they start dancing together, and it’s all like sweet and mellow, like little Barbie and Ken dolls on a slow rotating cupcake carousel, and that’s like ah, Con-so-nance.

  But then all’v’a sudden, this other note butts in and is like “Buzz off dude, I wanna dance with Cindy” and Cindy’s like “eww Kurt you smell like teen spirit, you’re gross, we’re not mathematically similar at all, get away”, and Kurt’s like “check out my moves Cindy,” and he’s like “Dissonance-Dissonance,” and Cindy don’t even like it one bit because their frequencies are like not working, and then the sensitive-similar, Consonance note-guy is like “Oh man, this feels really disorganized, I’d really like this to Resolve right now!” And then the Michael J Fox note starts to disappear from the picture because he kissed his mom, and he’s like--Chuck Berry, ner-ner-ner-ner-ner-ner,  but then it turns into Van Halen and it’s like midily- midily- midily- midily-miii!

  Um…so yeah why’d this happen? Why’d Emo-note-guy’s frequencies go well with Cindy’s frequencies, and why did Kurt’s frequencies not?

  And the answer is: Pythagoras.

  Yeah, Pythagoras--the same guy who made triangles—like, equal rights for triangles or whatever.

  HE figured out that WITHIN THE PHYSICAL REALITY OF OUR UNIVERSE, some notes like each other a lot, mildly, or not at all, because their frequencies are mathematically similar, kinda similar, or not at all similar because of their…wait for it… “frequency ratios.”  

  OK, so what are frequency ratios?

  Like, Imagine two dolphins swimming after a boat and FREQUENTLY jumping in and out of the water with each other, and the frequencies of their jumping are matching better--They’re starting their jumps at the same time a lot, not necessarily every time, but a lot of the time, and they’re also finishing their jumps together a lot.

  Like remember our Consonant note dancers? Same kinda thing with their dance moves--their starts and stops were matching up better, like: Consonance.

  OK, Dissonance. Now imagine one of the dolphins turns into a water-skier with a funny hat, I don’t know why he’s got a funny hat he just does, and the skier’s doing jumps too--but not jumps like the dolphin, he’s just skipping over the waves like bing bing bing, and it’s not matching up to the dolphin’s jumps at all--and the dolphin’s like screw this guy, and he tries to steal the funny hat from the skier and he’s all like “Aaaa! Get the heck away from me--dolphin.”

  Like that!

  OK right about now you’re probably asking yourself: how can some notes’ ‘Frequency ratios’ be more Mathematically similar or less similar? How do these matchups of jumps and landings work exactly?

  The answer to this, is to be found by studying the “Harmonic Series,” which is the topic of our next video entitled. Tonality part 2: The Harmonic Series.

  OK to review—When something makes a sound, that makes a frequency that has a specific pitch. The larger/looser or tinier/tighter the something that made that sound is, the lower or higher the pitch is! Every pitch’s frequency likes or dislikes other notes’ frequencies, more-or-less, based on how closely their “frequency ratios” match! And we use these ratios to separate notes into Consonant and Dissonant note relationships.

  So yeah, I hope you enjoyed our first Spotter Smarts video from Tonal! Stick around for the next one! And FB like us, or sign up on our mailing list so you know when it comes out!

  Thanks You guys!