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What’s the real difference between tonic and root?

Summary

  • the tonic is the first note of a scale, the root is the first note of a chord

That’s the short answer. However, a lot of people get confused when it comes to scales and chords, even when they think they know what they are. After all, isn’t the C major triad just the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the C major scale, so the tonic and the root are the same: C?

Here’s the longer answer:

Scales

Consider the opening of Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow:

Over the Rainbow (opening)

Before we get to the end of the second phrase, we’ve covered all the white notes from C to C:

C major scale

which, as some of you will know, is the C major scale. That’s the real meaning of a scale:

  • a scale is a set of notes a melody is based on

Now look at melody on the page again. It’s lots of single notes, one after the other:

Over the Rainbow - opening

For that reason, we say that melody is the horizontal aspect of music.

  • melody = horizontal = scale

Now, if you’re playing on the white notes, why is C the tonic, and not D or E, etc.? Let’s look at the end of the tune:

Over the Rainbow - end

If you play Over the Rainbow on the white notes, it finishes on C. In fact, most tunes played on the white notes finish on C:

Amazing Grace - end

happybirthday_end

whenthesaints_end

It’s as if C exerts a gravitational pull on the melody. For that reason, I prefer to call the tonic the home note of a scale rather than the first note. It’s the note that a tune comes home to. So:

  • the tonic is the home note of a scale

and

  • melody = horizontal = scale = tonic

Chords

Now chords. First of all, what is a chord?

  • a chord is more than one note happening at once

It doesn’t have to be a triad or a seventh, it really is just any bunch of notes happening at once.

Here’s the opening of Over the Rainbow with chords:

Over the Rainbow - chords

Now look at any chord in Over the Rainbow. It’s always a bunch of notes on top of each other:

Over the Rainbow - chords

For that reason, we say that harmony is the vertical aspect of music.

  • harmony = vertical = chord

Once again, I prefer to use the phrase home note when describing a root, because a root isn’t always the first note of a chord. For instance, it doesn’t matter how you arrange C, E and G, they always make up a C major chord:

C major triad

So:

  • the root is the home note of a chord

and

  • harmony = vertical = chord = root

Horizontal vs vertical

So, why is this all so important? Look at the opening of Over the Rainbow with chords again:

Over the Rainbow - chord symbols

The roots of the chords are C, A, E, C, F, B, C. However, all of the chords use white notes only, which is the C major scale, so the tonic is always C.

  • the root can change while the tonic stays the same

For that reason:

  • always keep horizontal and vertical separate in your mind

If you say C major, you need to know whether you’re referring to the C major scale (horizontal) or a C major chord (vertical), as they don’t always go together.

  • melody = horizontal = scale = tonic
  • harmony = vertical = chord = root

Carve it in stone.