Tonic, Dominant, And Subdominant Tones And Chords [Explained]

tonic dominant subdominant music chords

When looking at notes and chords for your key, it’s important to know what all the different terms are. 

But if you don’t have a good frame of reference, it’s easy to be concerned. 

Let’s start with the three most common tones and chords: the tonic, dominant, and subdominant. 

The tonic, subdominant, and dominant in music refer to the first, fourth, and fifth scale degree and chords in a key, respectively. The tonic is the home chord or tone and feels the most finished. A subdominant prepares the dominant, which then leads strongly back home to the tonic.

This whole topic is complex, but fear not! We’ll delve into some of the details with examples in the rest of the article. 

What Is A Tonic Chord? Scale Degree?

When we talk about different scale degrees in music, we’re talking about how notes and chords function within a key. 

Think about the key as a sort of backdrop for a piece, and every note, scale degree, and chord within this backdrop serves a specific purpose. 

The backdrop may change as the piece or song goes on, and if it does, the notes and chords change their purpose. 

But let’s assume our key doesn’t change. 

What does tonic refer to? 

Tonic refers to the first scale degree of a key or the chord built on the first scale degree. 

This one is the easiest to figure out; it gets the same name as the key itself. 

If you’re playing in the key of C major, the note C, and the C chord are the tonic. 

Tonic is the “home” of the key. 

When a melody or chord progression lands on the tonic, it feels finished.

In music, we used the word resolved to describe this feeling. 

The tonic scale degree, or note, refers to the specific pitch which is tonic. 

The tonic chord is built on the first scale degree in thirds (triad chord).

In other words, it skips every other note and typically consists of three pitches. 

Let’s stick with the key of C major for our example. 

The tonic is C, so the chord must be built on the notes C-E-G. 

To sound the most resolved, the lowest note of the chord must be C. 

In traditional music analysis (often called Roman Numeral Analysis), the tonic chord is notated with an upper-case “I” if the chord is major or a lower-case “i” if the chord is minor. 

What Is A Subdominant Chord? Scale Degree?

The subdominant scale degree refers to the fourth note in a key. 

Sticking with our easy example, if we look at C major, the fourth scale degree or pitch is F. 

C-D-E-F.

In a melody, the subdominant shows two strong tendencies: 

  1. To resolve upwards to the 5th scale degree (dominant). 
  2. To resolve downward to the 3rd scale degree (mediant). 

As a scale degree, we don’t often land on this note. 

It’s usually used in equal parts passing on its way up or down the scale as the piece or song plays. 

The subdominant chord is a different story. 

First, let’s talk about how to build it. 

Like with the tonic chord, we need to start by looking at the note alone as the base. 

We already decided it was F in our common example. 

After this, we need to build the chord by thirds. 

In C Major, we’ll start with F and then add A and C. 

The subdominant chords will rarely go back directly to the tonic chord, and it will almost always move to the dominant chord or something serving a dominant function. 

This is where the name subdominant comes from! 

In analysis, the subdominant receives an “IV” symbol. 

What Is A Dominant Chord? Scale Degree?

Dominant tones and chords are the second most common of the chords types and are often paired with the tonic. 

The dominant in music is based on the 5th scale degree in a key. 

If we look for the dominant pitch in the key of C major, we’ll be looking at G. 

C-D-E-F-G.

As a note in a melody, the dominant pitch may be used to indicate a tonic or dominant chord. 

Remember, the tonic chord includes the 5th scale degree on top! 

It’s up to the rest of the harmony and placement in the melody to determine whether or not the tone fits in with different chords. 

As a melody note, the pitch is used for many reasons, including: 

  • Passing on the way up or down. 
  • Jumping from 5 to 1 (dominant to tonic).
  • Holding to emphasize a semi-complete feeling. 
  • Holding before moving on to generate tension and keep the phase moving. 

 Confused yet?

Music is complex, and we can’t tell the purpose or feeling of a single scale degree in a vacuum, especially one as versatile as the dominant tone. 

But looking at the dominant chord, we have a more “locked-in” purpose. 

A dominant chord is built on the 5th scale degree and may use three notes or even four! 

In C major, the dominant chord is G-B-D or (for a more powerful resolution) G-B-D-F. 

When using three notes, it’s given the symbol “V” in Roman Numeral Analysis. 

With the addition of the fourth note (the subdominant tone), we call a Dominant Seven or “V7” chord. 

The majority of the time, a dominant chord with resolve to the tonic chord. 

Sometimes, they’ll try to fake you out and move to the 6-chord or submediant. 

In some cases, they’ll avoid going to the tonic at all and leave the phrase feeling unfinished to propel the listener forward to the next phrase. 

Music is a crazy and complex thing, right?

Most Common Chord Progression

With all of these chords in mind, we can talk about the most common chord progressions. 

These three chords will do the bulk of the work for most songs out there (at least if they’re in a Major key). 

The most common chord progression is I-IV-V-I or tonic-subdominant-dominant-tonic. 

A song starts with a clear, established sound, the tonic. 

Remember how tonic feels like home? We have to establish the “home” first. 

Then, we travel to the nice-sounding but leading subdominant. 

On its own, the subdominant doesn’t seem to lead anywhere, but when you’ve just come from home, it feels like you’ve taken a jog away and just lost sight of your house. 

Then, after traveling for a bit, we are led to the dominant chord. 

The feeling of this chord screams a return to home (unless we want to keep you going). 

Our ears in Western Music (Europe, U.S., and Western Asia) have been trained to hear these notes as leading back into the tonic. 

When we finally return home to the tonic, all is well with our song and our ears. 

We could stop listening right there and feel satisfied. 

All from three simple notes and chords and how they work together. 

Do you know what to do when you see a squiggly line in music or with a chord? Read this article to learn more.

Tonic, Subdominant, And Dominant Chord Example

If we take a look at this simple melody from Jingle Bells, we’ll see this progression and these chords in action. 

Have a listen to the notation with the simple chords below it. 

Walkthrough: 

  1. We start, as expected, with the I chord or tonic. 
  2. Then we move to the subdominant and feel as if we’ve traveled from home. 
  3. We get a quick hint of the tonic again, but it’s so brief that we don’t feel complete. 
  4. The dominant chord comes in and doesn’t resolve. Our ears know there’s more (imagine if it ended here!). 
  5. We get much of the same as above…
  6. …but now, the dominant returns home at the end to the tonic. It feels so complete! 

By the way, this is a good example of an antecedent and consequent phrase in music too.

12 Bar Blues Chord Example

These three chords (tonic, subdominant, and dominant) also make up most of the Blues-style of music too! 

All you need to play a Blues song is really these three major chords. 

A 12-bar Blues forms the basis for this style of music, and it goes in this order. 

Tonic TonicTonicTonic
SubdominantSubdominantTonicTonic
Dominant Dominant Tonic Tonic

Did you notice that with the little jog back to the tonic in the second line, it looks almost exactly like our Jingle Bells example? 

Here’s another way to look at it in video form: 

Scale Degree Names

If you love learning about music theory or you want to learn all the scales, use this chart to help you remember. 

Sticking with the example key from above, we’ll look at all the scale degree names in the key of the C major scale. 

Note: To keep the idea of vertical motion and to build off of tonic, I put tonic at the bottom of the chart. 

Scale Degree NameNumber in a keyLetter in the key of C Major
Leading Tone7B
Submediant6A
Dominant5G
Subdominant4F
Mediant3E
Supertonic2D
Tonic1C

Please note, these are the notes of the diatonic scale, which means they use no altered pitches from the standard scale. 

As such, the diatonic chords will also all function the same way as described. 

Once you start altering pitches, it changes things. 

Commonly Asked Questions

Can A Subdominant Go To A Tonic?

Subdominant rarely goes to tonic as a resolution. There are just too few tones leading to one another to create enough tension for it to sound finished. 

But the subdominant goes to tonic all the time as a little aside or taste or what tonic is.

Most of the time, this tonic isn’t in root position (where the fundamental pitch or building block isn’t on the bottom), so it isn’t as strong. 

The tonic will also return quickly to the subdominant or dominant, as it does in our examples above. 

Traditional church music will sometimes use an added subdominant-tonic motion to create the pleasing “Amen” sound at the end of a Hymn. 

How Do You Tell If A Chord Is Dominant Or Tonic?

To tell the difference between dominant and tonic chords, you need to look at all the notes being played at that moment. If the notes build from 1-3-5 in any order, it’s tonic. If you see more 5-7-2 (sometimes 4), then it’s dominant. 

Remember, the tonic is built off the first note or scale degree. Dominant is built off the 5th. 

Can A Dominant Go To A Subdominant?

While the dominant can go to the subdominant, it rarely happens except as a tool to prolong a phrase. When it does this, the two chords usually alternate until the phrase is ready to finish with a clear dominant-tonic motion. 

What Is The Subdominant Function?

A subdominant function is the preparing and sending of the harmony to the dominant function in a key. The subdominant function doesn’t have to be a full subdominant chord at all as long as the feeling is implied. 

In fact, the 2nd scale degree (supertonic) and its minor chords will often substitute the subdominant chord itself because the supertonic chord has a similar subdominant function. 

A chord function won’t always correlate to its place in the list of scale degrees. 

What Are Subdominant And Dominant Keys?

In more complex pieces, whole sections will leave the original tonic key altogether and spend time using the keys built on the subdominant and dominant scale degrees. During these times, the subdominant and dominant become a temporary tonic while the piece is in the new key. 

If this likes a bit much to take in, don’t worry about it! 

Stick with the basics we covered, and if you want to learn more, take a class at your local university. 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

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