The key to understanding

“Setting the right tone” is a common enough phrase that’s readily understood and achieved in everyday life. But how does a composer set the right tone in a piece of music? Composition is an increasingly common activity in schools nowadays, so even the youngest students will be able to rattle off for you the tools of the trade that facilitate getting a piece off the ground and in the right style.

Of all these tools (or ‘elements’, as they’re known), tonality is probably the trickiest to handle. And if you’re an enthusiastic listener, as opposed to a knowledgeable performer, you’re probably unaware of how crucial tonality is, and how it subtly massages your emotional response to the music as it unfolds.

keysignature-keystoneAt the core of the western system of tonality for several centuries have been scales (which are logical series of notes) that are presented in different keys. Changing from one key to another might be handily explained as using more, or fewer, of those pesky black notes on the piano. Just as the keystone in an arch supports the whole structure, the key of a piece acts as a central pillar for the sound.

When you listen to the four movements of Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B flat major (8.550145), for example, the first and last will be in that key of B flat, while the middle movements will be set in keys that wander off, but not too far, from the nest: like setting out on a journey, taking a few turns around the block, and then coming home.

If you put an individual movement under the microscope, the composer will usually follow a similar template, by visiting different keys before returning to where he started in the first bar.

So often, there’s that elastic sense of tonality setting out on a journey and then returning to base. If art and life are supposed to mirror each other, however, there’s a bit of a mismatch, since people tend not to be born, grow up and die in the same place; they progress, rather than take root.

In the 19th century, increasing numbers of composers began to recognise this and experimented with breaking out of the traditional mould, either pitching the first and last movements of a symphony in different keys, or doing the same for the opening and closing stretches of a single movement. It’s called ‘progressive tonality’.


The logic of doing so is perhaps best understood when there’s a narrative behind the notes. Take Vaughan WilliamsOn Wenlock Edge (8.557114), a setting of A.E. Housman’s poems written in 1909 for tenor, string quartet and piano. The last song, Clun, portrays a river’s unformed character at its source (where the music refuses to identify with any particular key at all), proceeding through rougher currents (lots of those black notes!) and eventually absorbing itself into the ocean, all the while mirroring the changing ages of man. The narrator wonders where he will eventually offload the burdens of life, at which point the music radiantly progresses onto a peaceful, final chord in the key of A major:

’Tis a long way further than Knighton,
A quieter place then Clun,
Where doomsday may thunder and lighten
And little ’twill matter to one.

gustav-mahlerMahler himself wrote the words for his four Songs of a Wayfarer (8.111300), composed during a transitional phase of his own life, when he was progressing professionally and emotionally with mixed results. All the songs begin and end in different keys. Those who are knowledgeable on the theoretical rudiments will recognise how far the tonality has progressed in the final song, which moves from E minor to F minor, as the narrator tries to escape the vision of “the two blues eyes of my beloved”, and move on from his plight of unrequited love.


Mahler also used progressive tonality in several of his large-scale symphonies. The composer tried to paint the whole of life into his music, moving between depressing death marches to exultant, hymn-like paeans of sound, so it’s not surprising that his use of tonality swung on a similar pendulum, both within individual movements and in the overall concept.

franz-schubertDecades earlier, Franz Schubert had employed a fluid sense of tonality in, for example, his Der Wanderer (8.572459) fantasy for piano, published in 1821. Based on one of his songs with the same title (The Wanderer), the notion of tonality wandering off is easily assimilated: the first three of its four sections all begin and end in different keys; the final bars of each section are written in the key of the following one to act as a springboard into it.

Other examples abound but, as mentioned above, most people—myself included—remain relatively unaware on the surface as to what is happening as a result of that shifting undercurrent of tonality. Maybe it’s one good reason to wish that we all had the gift of perfect pitch, provided that we could turn it off during ill-prepared performances, with or without progressive tonality.

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