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The Return to the Tonic

Module by: Anthony Brandt. E-mail the author

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Please note that you must have the most recent copy of Macromedia's Flash plugin installed to play the musical examples.

Having taken you away from the tonic, it’s now time to bring you back.

Just as the dominant leads to the tonic within the key, the dominant typically helps to restore the tonic key after a series of modulations. This “stand on the dominant,” as it is generally called, can be quite involved and expansive, incorporating chromaticism as a way of building tension. The greater the amount of time spent away from the tonic, the longer the “stand” on the dominant may tend to be.

In J.S. Bach’s “Prelude in C-Major” from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, the return to the tonic is prepared by stand on the dominant that lasts for a quarter of the composition! When the bass finally moves to the tonic, there is one more postponement of closure: Chromaticism is added to the tonic chord, delaying final resolution until the very last chord.

A return to the tonic is often accompanied by a recognizable reprise of the primary theme: Often, the only complete restatements of the theme occur in the tonic; all the others are interrupted in some way.

J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 opens by stating its theme in full.

For this arrival in the dominant, the theme is “cracked open” and new music inserted in the middle.

This arrival in minor is marked by a truncated version of the theme—only its tail is played, as if you were just catching a glimpse of it.

The theme finally is restored “whole” at the culminating return to the original key.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in g-minor likewise begins with a full statement of its main theme.

Once it begins to modulate, the theme is never stated in full until the return to the original key. In an unusual and exquisite touch, the theme’s return slightly overlaps with the stand on the dominant; as a result, it resolves to the tonic a few beats later than expected.

Thus, one of the primary ways of affirming the return to the tonic is to reserve complete thematic statements for the home key. That helps the listener orient him or herself: “If the theme is whole, I must be home.”

As a movement reaches its close, there is often one last postponement of closure, called a Coda. The Coda is a section whose purpose is to delay the tonic arrival one last time.

The Finale of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 in C-Major, “Jupiter” ends with one of classical music’s great Codas. The excerpt begins with a passage that could have functioned as the closing cadence. However, instead of ending there, Mozart extends the Finale with a Coda in which all of its themes are combined in a gigantic “mash-up.”

The Coda of the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 begins with a humorous touch. The speeding up of harmonic rhythm at the final cadence makes for a roof-raising conclusion.

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Musical Examples
  1. J.S. Bach, 'Prelude in C-Major' from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, Maurizio Pollini, piano
  2. J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 - I, Orchestra Opera, Alexander Titov
  3. J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 - I, Orchestra Opera, Alexander Titov
  4. J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 - I, Orchestra Opera, Alexander Titov
  5. J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 - I, Orchestra Opera, Alexander Titov
  6. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in g-minor - I, Berlin Philharmonic, Karl Böhm, conductor
  7. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in g-minor - I, Berlin Philharmonic, Karl Böhm, conductor
  8. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 41 'Jupiter', Berlin Philharmonic, Karl Böhm, conductor
  9. Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 7, Vienna Philharmonic, Karl Böhm
J.S. Bach, 'Prelude in C-Major' from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, Maurizio Pollini, piano (0:39)
J.S. Bach, 'Prelude in C-Major' from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, Maurizio Pollini, piano (0:39)
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Deutsche Grammophon
J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 - I, Orchestra Opera, Alexander Titov (0:29)
J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 - I, Orchestra Opera, Alexander Titov (0:29)
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High Definition Classics
J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 - I, Orchestra Opera, Alexander Titov (0:43)
J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 - I, Orchestra Opera, Alexander Titov (0:43)
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J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 - I, Orchestra Opera, Alexander Titov (0:13)
J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 - I, Orchestra Opera, Alexander Titov (0:13)
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High Definition Classics
J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 - I, Orchestra Opera, Alexander Titov (0:33)
J.S. Bach, Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 - I, Orchestra Opera, Alexander Titov (0:33)
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High Definition Classics
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in g-minor - I, Berlin Philharmonic, Karl Böhm, conductor (0:29)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in g-minor - I, Berlin Philharmonic, Karl Böhm, conductor (0:29)
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Deutsche Grammophon
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in g-minor - I, Berlin Philharmonic, Karl Böhm, conductor (0:42)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in g-minor - I, Berlin Philharmonic, Karl Böhm, conductor (0:42)
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Deutsche Grammophon
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 41 'Jupiter', Berlin Philharmonic, Karl Böhm, conductor (NaN:NaN)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 41 'Jupiter', Berlin Philharmonic, Karl Böhm, conductor (NaN:NaN)
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Deutsche Grammophon
Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 7, Vienna Philharmonic, Karl Böhm (NaN:NaN)
Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 7, Vienna Philharmonic, Karl Böhm (NaN:NaN)
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Deutsche Grammophon