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The royal drama of subdominants and dominants

In every musical key, there are special relationships between the notes. And all these relationships evolve around a central – and uber-powerful – tonic note. In the key of C, for example, the C note acts as the tonic … the tonal center of the key that presides over all the other pitches in its kingly domain.

No, really … the tonic note of a key truly is like the lord of the castle. It exerts a strong influence on the other notes, which act as its subservient subjects.

Royal tonic with subdominant, dominant, and tritone in ColorMusic chromatic scale

Taking this analogy a bit further, you can find all sorts of royal intrigue in a key. Some of the tonic king’s courtiers hold more sway than others – while others act as the king’s foes. The tritone, for example, is the tonic’s arch nemesis. It sounds highly dissonant when paired with the tonic … and therefore, rarely gets invited to the king’s parties.

But the tonic’s close relatives – the subdominant and dominant notes – are favored kin. So they are often seen cavorting with the royal king. In the key of C, for example, the subdominant (F) and dominant (G) even share the tonic’s “red blood” … so they sound very consonant when played with the tonic. In fact, you might even say they sound downright beautiful together.

The tonic is closely related to the subdominant and dominant because these notes are all neighbors in the circle of fifths. So the royal C note feels nice and snug when nestled between F and G.

Royal tonic note in ColorMusic circle of fifths and chromatic scale

But when the circle of fifths pattern is rearranged into the chromatic scale, the subdominant (4) and dominant (5) notes are moved to straddle the tonic king’s tritone (#4/b5). And that makes for some fascinating royal intrigue. As a result, all of these tonal friends and enemies in the chromatic scale are forced to be in close quarters … which heightens the musical drama.

But wait – it gets even better!

That’s because every note can have its day in the sun. That is, every note in music can serve as the king of its own key. And because the relationships between notes are symmetrical in each key, the connections between pitches are super rich and intriguing.

To see what I mean, check out this illustration of the chromatic scale – with lines connecting every tonic with its respective subdominants and dominants. The symmetry is astounding. And the multiple layers of tonal relationships are, frankly, mind-blowing.

All subominant and dominant notes in ColorMusic chromatic scale

Ahhh, the ever-compelling story of music theory. The ongoing battles for consonance and dissonance. The shifts in tonal power. The harmonic loyalties, and conflicting betrayals. It’s images like this that give meaning to the phrase, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave.”

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  • kyle gonyer

    Just finished reading every blog post and I must say This site has some great stuff!.

    Some of the meat in the theory stuff (pages 2-3) is great, but I personally rather learn the concept with only the circle of fifth diagram as trying to wrap my head around all the interval connection lines with your chromatic scale diagram (a variation of that). It is another visual chart to remember IMO…Again that me. That being said, one thing I find is that instead of trying to remember which note is “crummy” or “dissonance” in your chromatic diagram, I just find that I can refer to the circle of fifths and remember that all colors that are similar “warm” “cool” or what I call “tropical” (citrus or green mixed colors) sound good together and that playing a cold note with a warm group of notes will stand out or sound wrong and vise versa.

    Again this is just me and as a guitarist relating the chromatic scale in diagram that lends itself to being very sequential (like piano keys) kind of goes out the door unless you play only on 1 string. Using colors and understand the relation ships by the circle of 5th’s “warm to cool as you go clockwise” I find fits a little better. I think that the circle of 5th lends itself better to guitarist and circle of chromatic lends itself better to pianist (a keyboard bent around in a circle. Again love the site and will probably get your stickers as I love the color and shapes concept you have….very easy to understand.

    • Mike George

      Thank you for your comment!

      You’re totally right about visualizing the color patterns and how they communicate varying levels of consonance and dissonance. It really is true that a picture is worth a thousand words.

      The circle of fifths is very useful for seeing connections on the guitar. And I can definitely see how the circular chromatic scale can be abstract and seemingly unrelated to the guitar. Your comment has inspired a vlog post that I’m now writing about how the guitar fretboard is actually a combination of these two patterns — the circle of fifths and chromatic scale.

      Thank you again for your feedback! Let me know if you have any other questions or comments.

  • MyColorMusic

    Hi Kyle, thank you very much for your feedback on the site. (As with your other comment, I responded, but had some incorrect settings that kept it from posting. Hence the appearance of my stony silence….)

    You make a really interesting point about the circle of fifths versus chromatic scale. I’m filmed a vlog that addresses this, which will post in the next week. I’m very happy to hear the colors are helping you visualize the patterns in music. There’s much more to come!

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