GCSE A-Level Revision


Tonality isn’t something we can ever avoid in a music exam, it simply will feature. So we need to prepare for this and make sure that we understand exactly what Tonality is and what potential answers we have. Sometimes Tonality can be confused with Harmony and therefore wrong answers are just a pen stroke away.

Tonality is basically all about keys and the central note of a piece of music. Music in essence is either Tonal or Atonal, and hopefully the difference is obvious.

So where do you start when you see the word Tonality?

Is it Diatonic?

Most of the music we listen to is Diatonic and therefore:

involving only notes proper to the prevailing key without chromatic alteration”.

You can therefore describe most of the set-works that we listen to as Diatonic…but not entirely in every case. But if we take the Bach Set Work form the Edexcel anthology, we could describe that as being Diatonic.

Is it Chromatic?

In Many ways if a piece is entirely Chromatic then it is the exact opposite to Diatonic. Often a piece isn’t entirely chromatic, certainly most of the pieces we regularly come across. So it is important to look out for passages that contain more chromatic movement and then comment on this in the exam. I guess if there was a question asking how the Tonality has changed, then it might be that they are wanting you to comment on Chromatic movement. Chromatic simply means:

“using notes not belonging to the diatonic scale of the key in which a passage is written”.

For example, the opening of Defying Gravity, one of the Edexcel GCSE Set Works, is somewhat Chromatic. It is tonally ambiguous and contains chromatic movement and unrelated chords. So I would suggest that we need to look out for passages, or sections that are more ambiguous and make sure that we don’t just go for Diatonic.

Is it Atonal?

This should be pretty obvious, a complete lack of any sense of tonality at all. The best example from the current exam boards is probably “Petals” By Kaija Saariaho – one of the Edexcel A-Level set works. This piece has no tonal centre, no real recurring notes, no real harmony and little sense of any key at all. It is all about sound and rhythm and timbres. It is good to be aware of atonality, but make sure that you don’t mix it up with something that is just highly chromatic.

Is it Modal?

If a piece is Modal then it means it is based on a mode – Eleanor Rigby is Modal for example. There are lots of examples of Modality in music and it would be good to look these up and listen to them. The key thing to remember is that if a piece sounds a bit like it is from a Pirate Movie, then it is probably using the Dorian mode. I have massively simplified Modality there, but it is true. Or if a piece sounds like monks chanting in an abbey 100s of years ago, then it is probably Modal. These generalisations are just there to help you. It would be good to understand what modes are all about even if they don’t really appear in the set works you are studying – they might be a useful tool for composition. There is some use of modes in the Edexcel GCSE Set Work  by Afro Celt Sound System: ‘Release’.


This is where 5 notes are used and the generalisations here are simply – it sounds “worldy” or “Oriental”. Swing Low Sweet Chariot is Pentatonic. Folk music is also often Pentatonic, or Modal in-fact. Listen to some examples and maybe play a pentatonic scale on a piano – just the black notes. The more you listen to music that you know is Pentatonic, the more likely you are to recognise it.

When you are discussing Tonality you most definitely need to stick to a discussion of keys, tonal centres, and the areas discussed above. You are not talking about chords or cadences, but more the way the notes used relate to each other. You may also comment on modulations that take place in a piece and there are lots of examples of modulation in most of the set works. Tonality can be obvious or ambiguous, just make sure you are writing about the correct thing. Students all too often end up talking about Harmony when they mean Tonality. And even if it is obvious that a piece is Major or Minor, it is still relevant and important.

Listen lots and always think about the tonality, that will be the best thing you can do to prepare for the listening exam.

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