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Melody Writing

Question: What is the definition of the following?

  1. Tendency tone
  2. Stable tone
  3. Active tone

– Timothy (Ibadan, Oyo, Nigeria)

Albert’s reply: These are harmonic terms having specifically to do with melody writing and voice leading. Let’s take stable tones first. These are the tones of the tonic triad, scale degrees 1, 3 and 5.

For example, in C major:

… the notes C, E and G (scale degrees 1, 3 and 5) are stable tones. They don’t “need” to move anywhere.

The tonic – the first note of the scale – is the most stable tone, followed by scale degrees 3 and 5.

Tendency tones and active tones are synonymous. These are the other scale degrees: 2, 4, 6 and 7.

Scale degrees 2, 4 and 6 resolve downward: Scale degree 2 “wants” to resolve to 1; 4 wants to resolve to 3, and 6 to 5.

Scale degree 7 – called the leading tone when it is a half-step below the tonic – is the exception in that it resolves upward to the tonic.

You can visualize (and play) the tendency (active) tones and their resolutions to stable tones using this illustration:

Remember that these are mere guidelines that are useful for analyzing music, melody writing and improvising. No musical rule is absolute!

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