Introduction: How to Analyze Tonal Music

Music is a very important part of our everyday lives and most people do not understand the hidden intricacies that make it sound the way it does. These instructions will teach you the basic steps to begin analyzing any genre of tonal music as long as you know the notes. Knowing basic chord structure can be very beneficial in understanding why music sounds a certain way and allow you to listen to your favorite songs on a much deeper level as well as help you in writing your own music that you know will sound good.

In order for these instructions to be beneficial to you, you must be able to proficiently read music and have a very basic understanding of music theory such as understanding key signatures and note names. Those without such knowledge may find themselves lost early on.

For these instructions, I will be working through analysis of my simple arrangement of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" using music notation software as shown in the picture above. As you progress through these instructions, more and more of the analysis will be filled in, allowing for easy visual representation of each step. It is recommended that you use this as you follow through these instructions for visual clarification. Note that you do not need any kind of notation software in order to complete this process.

If you understand basic music and you follow these instructions, you will be able to analyze and understand the chordal structure of tonal music and understand music on a much deeper level. All it requires is a pencil and some sheet music.

Step 1: Understand Major and Minor Scales

Scales are the most basic part of music and they set the groundwork for all of music theory. That being said, it is important that all musicians fully understand every scale regardless of what instrument they play or what music they perform.

In order to become familiar with scales:

  1. Identify major scales by writing the note names moving forward alphabetically.
    • Tip: Remember that after G, the notes repeat back to A. There are no H's in music!
  2. Apply all of the necessary sharps or flats as dictated by the key signature.
    • Tip: All key signatures have been written out in figure 1 above right before the corresponding scale.

    • Tip: Check to see if your scales are correct by checking to make sure they follow the pattern Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step. This means that the interval between the first and second note should be a whole step, followed by a whole step, half step, etc.

    • Tip: Look at the circle of fifths in figure 2 above. This can be very beneficial in memorizing key signatures. Starting at C, each key moving clockwise will add 1 flat (or take away 1 sharp)

  3. Create minor scales by adding a flat to the third, sixth, and seventh notes of the major scale.
    • Alternatively: The inner letters in the circle of fifths are the minor keys. They share the same key signature as their major scales directly outside the circle i.e. A minor and C major share the same key signature since they correspond on the circle of fifths.

    • With this in mind, write out the scales with their minor key signatures.

Step 2: Understand Chord Structure Using the Major and Minor Scales

Chords are scales with certain notes taken out and played at the same time. Be sure that you know all of your scales correctly before moving on to this step as understanding chords requires basic knowledge of scales.

  • Chords are made up of the first, third, and fifth steps of a major or minor scale.

In order to build chords using scales:

  1. Identify the 1st, 3rd, and 5th steps of any particular scale and stack them on a staff, forming a basic chord.
    • Tip: Remember to keep your major and minor chords straight. If step 3 of the chord is from the minor scale, the chord is then minor and should be notated with a lower-case m next to the letter name. If step 3 is from the major scale, the chord is major. See image above for visual representation.
  2. Stack the three notes on top of each other in ascending order on the staff starting with step 1 on the bottom to form the chord as shown in the image above.
    • Tip: If you have your notes stacked correctly, they should all end up on adjacent lines or spaces.
    • Experiment with the tonalities. If you place step 1 on the bottom, your chord is in root position. Try writing the same chord, but with a different step on the bottom. This is known as an inversion which gives off a different sound, even though the notes are all the same. Inversions will be covered in more detail later on.

Step 3: Look Through the Music and Find the Chords

Using what you have learned in the last two steps, you will now apply that knowledge to analyzing music. While following these steps, refer to the image above for visual representation.

  1. In the written music above, look through each chord and write down the name of the chord above the staff
    • Tip: Before naming the chord, look at each note in that chord and write them down in root position on the staff. This will make it easier to determine the chord and prevent many avoidable mistakes when analyzing music.
  2. Identify those chords using the note name of what scale they originate from and whether or not they are major or minor
    • Indicate minor chords by writing a small, lowercase m next to the letter. You may also identify them using lowercase letters.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 for every chord in the piece.
    • Tip: Remember that chords are always aligned vertically. The chord changes every time the bottom note on the staff changes.
    • Tip: If you see two notes that are overlapping, it means that two voices are playing the same note at the same time.

Step 4: Using the Key Signature, Decide How Each Chord Fits Together

Now that you know every chord in the piece by name, you now need to analyze these chords in order to see how they all fit together.

Tip: Remember to follow the image above for a visual example while following these steps.

  1. Look at the key signature at the beginning of the line and use it to identify the key of the piece. You can use the circle of 5ths from step one if you need help identifying the key signature.
    • Tip: In the piece used with these instructions(above), you will notice that the key signature is the key of Eb, since there are three flats listed.
  2. Now that you know the key signature, write down the note names of the scale of that key.
  3. Look at each chord name and relate it to the step of the key signature by step number.
    • For example: a G major chord would be the 5 chord in C major because it is the 5th step of the C major scale and a Bb chord would be the 4 chord in Eb because it is the 4th step of the Eb major scale.
    • Tip:The first chord of the first measure will almost always be a 1 chord. If you have something other than a 1 chord at the beginning, reconsider the key signature.
  4. Write all of the chord numbers below the staff using roman numerals.
    • If the chord is minor, write the roman numeral in lower case letters.
  5. In all music, you will see some sort of inverted chord.
    • If the bottom note of the chord is step 1, that chord is in root position. Only write the roman numeral for this chord, nothing else.
    • If the bottom note of the chord is step 3, that chord is in first position. Indicate this by writing a 6 right next to the roman numeral.
    • If the bottom note of the chord is step 5, that chord is in second position. Indicate this by writing a 6/4 next to the roman numeral.
    • See image above for visual example.

Tip: Looking at the image above, you may notice in measures 6 and 8 that there is a chord with the roman numeral V 6/4 followed by a lone 5/3. This is a special trick we use when analyzing chord structure and just a fancy way of writing I 6/4 - V. i.e. this is just another way of analyzing a I chord in second position followed by a V chord in root position.

Step 5: Analyze Each Segment

Now that you have a number system for all of the chords in the piece, you are able to analyze the chord structure and how they all fit together.

Make sure to refer to the image above for any visual clarification.

In order to analyze the chord structure:

  1. Place a T underneath your first I chord.
    • This is your tonic and stands for the main chord of the piece.
  2. Place a PD underneath your first Pre-Dominant chord.
    • Pre-dominant chords are any chord that is not a I or a V.
    • They are known as pre-dominants because they are typically every chord leading up to the dominant.
  3. Find your first Dominant Chord and place a D underneath it.
    • Dominant chords are always V chords in root position.
    • Tip: If you have an inverted V chord, it is most likely a pre-dominant.
  4. Draw a line connecting connecting the previous three steps
    • Tip: You may notice that there are a lot of chords that do not get labeled in this step. The reason you draw a line is to indicate that every chord along that line functions the same as previous label. i.e every chord following the PD functions as a pre-dominant until you reach the dominant chord.
  5. Find your next I chord, place a T underneath.
    • This is your new tonic indicating either the end of the phrase or the start of a new phrase.
    • Tip: Sometimes phrases end with the dominant chord. This is what causes tension that makes the listener want to continue listening. Sometimes the tonic can indicate both the end of a phrase and the start of a phrase in one chord. Do not be alarmed if you come across a phrase missing a final tonic chord.
  6. Repeat steps 1-5 until you reach the end of the piece.
    • By doing this, you will analyze the function of every chord throughout the piece.

See the above image for a visual example of this step.

Conclusion
If you followed these steps correctly, your music should end up looking like the image in step 5. In order to truly check your understanding, I recommend reanalyzing the same piece of music, this time without using the provided visual examples and making sure you still end up with the same result. You may even try without even reading these instructions. Now that you have completed these instructions, the only way to get better is to practice. Take pieces of music you like and analyze their chord structure. Find music to your favorite pop song on the radio, or maybe take some Beethoven compositions and analyze them. Almost all music you will ever listen to can be analyzed following these instructions. Learn more theory concepts that were not covered in these instructions such as new chord types or new melodic modes. If you are able to do any of these, you will be better able to understand the music you enjoy and understand it on a different level that others do not. You may even be able to apply these new concepts into writing your own music that you know will sound good to most listeners. Music is a very important part of our everyday lives and if you followed these instructions in their entirety, you should be able to analyze and understand the music you listen to on a deeper level.

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