Select Page

13/2: Musical Home

Next Page: 13/3 – Deceptive Tonicization and Modulation

Tonicization, Modulation and the Ancient Modes


Indian classical music is principally based on melody and rhythm, not on harmony, counterpoint, chords, modulation and the other basics of Western classical music. –Ravi Shankar

In the Western European musical tradition, tonicization and modulation are extremely common. Ancient musical systems tuned to Just Intonation rarely change keys. That’s the ultimate tradeoff in almost all music: you can either play in tune or you can change keys and move around freely from chord to chord and from key to key. You can either embrace a musical style that is exquisitely in tune but has the dronal and static quality of ancient music and cultures, or you can choose to do violence to the natural harmonics and take transformational journeys to far-away tonal places, like the Western Europeans did. As I said in Chapter One, in 53-eq you have it all: beautifully in-tune music that allows for unlimited harmonic journeys, modulations and transformations with nary an inherently violent harmonic conflict to be found anywhere. The goal of this chapter is to show you how to change keys in any ancient scale, and even how to seamlessly transition from an ancient mode from one kingdom to another mode from a land far, far away. But first, let’s briefly summarize the traditional practices of tonicization and modulation in our Western European theory system.

In our classical tradition, the Tonic is the home key, the remnant of the Om or unchanging note of the ancients worldwide. The tonic is almost never played throughout a Western classical piece. Chord progressions are a journey away from the tonic or home chord, which lead back to the tonic in the end. The absence of the dronal note is temporary, just enough to make you look over your shoulder while knowing where home is even though you have left temporarily. In a simple chord progression or cadence like C –  F  — G  –  C, you always know that home is the tonic note C. You can also create a deceptive cadence, where your listener expects a return to a C Major chord but lands somewhere else instead, like this:  C – F – G – a minor. After the deceptive cadence, you can re-state the cadence and land at home, extending the harmonic journey by a small amount. The full chord progression might look like this: C – F – G – a1 min – F – G – C.   Now your journey takes you first to a place you expect will be home, but it’s not, so you continue until you find your way back.

Let’s take our “Home” image a step further. If a chord progression is like a walk around your own neighborhood before you return home, then Tonicization is like a short vacation, where you actually pack your bags and spend a few nights in a cabin in the mountains. In musical terms, in tonicization another note becomes the temporary tonic. The simplest way to accomplish this is by playing the dominant of whatever chord you are tonicizing first. You can tonicize only the Major and Minor chords of your scale. So in the C-Major scale, tonicizing the B-diminished chord in that scale would be a no-no. The “secondary dominant” chords that are used to create tonicization are often not in the scale of the root note. For example, if you want to Tonicize the dominant note G in the key of C, you’d play a D Major or D dominant 7th chord, either of which have an F# in them even though the C Major scale has an F-Natural.

In a 12-eq C Major scale, the secondary dominant triads look like this:

Figure 13-1 Secondary dominants

A Major or A7 to D minor

B or B7 to e minor

C or C7 to F

D or D7 to G

E or E7 to a minor

You can’t tonicize the C because it is already the tonic (a musical staycation?). And you can’t tonicize the B because it’s a diminished chord and can’t function as a tonic. The strongest tonicizations are always the dominant sevenths, followed by the Major triads. Minor triads can also be used for a weaker or more subtle Tonicization.

If you tonicize a note by playing its dominant first, how long can you stay in the new realm? Almost as short or as long as you want. In fact, many well-known chord progressions are sequences of tonicized pairs of chords, one after another, such as this (which you can play on the piano):  C – A7 – d min – B7 – e min – C7 – F – G7 – C.  The primary chord progression here is C – d min – e min – F – G7 – C. The D, E and F are all tonicized first, but there’s never any feeling of really leaving the home key of C Major. There’s no reason you can’t hang out around e minor and its related chords for a bar or two longer before continuing the progression back towards C. If you hang out too long, somewhere along the way you have to call what you’re doing a modulation. If you visit your parents and stay in their basement for a year, you’re not exactly visiting any more.

Let’s take our Home image a couple steps further. Imagine you have a new job. You’ve enjoyed hiking and climbing and skiing in Colorado all your life, but now you must move to Montgomery, Alabama. So you uproot yourself and move everything down there. Your life’s journey takes you to a whole new region of the country. Everything and everyone you knew is over. You have a new Home now. You stay there for a while, but then you get another job opportunity and move to Fargo, North Dakota. And there you stay, except that finally you reach retirement age and you move back to your home town in Colorado. Everything is familiar again, and your journey is complete.

If Tonicization is like taking a vacation in a cottage somewhere in the wilderness, Modulation is moving everything to a new house. But you never really forget Home, and finally, when you retire, you end up back Home. The analogy breaks down if you become one of the millions of people who retire in Florida. In our musical metaphor, you have to return to your original home or the journey will not be very satisfying.

If you would like to learn more about this chapter and how it fits into the bigger musical picture of 53-equal tunings, you can buy the entire book, The Grand Unified Theory of Music, in pdf form for $25 with hundreds of embedded musical examples of scales and chords from all over the world.

A free introduction to what The Grand Unified Theory of Music offers is on this website and includes both text and a few musical examples from each webpage. If you would like to learn more about this chapter and the full contents of this entire e-book, you can buy The Grand Unified Theory of Music for $25, with hundreds of embedded musical examples of scales and chords from all over the world — and ideas for how to set up your computer system —


You’ll get a personalized password you can use to see the entire e-book. Inside the full book, you will also get a link to the complete pdf file of this e-book, which you can read on your Kindle or similar device. The links to the hundreds of mp3 sound files – the same ones you can hear on the website — will also be included. This is “Version 1.0” of The Grand Unified Theory of Music. Because it is an e-book, additions, corrections and improvements in the sound may be added at any time. The Grand Unified Theory of Music is Copyright © 2018 by Christopher Mohr. All rights reserved.

One person per password. Sharing this password with others is a violation of copyright. Do not allow others to use your password or link to the pdf file!

Next Page: 13/3 – Deceptive Tonicization and Modulation