TonalityGUIDE - basic tonal music theory and analysis for undergraduates
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Introduction to tonality More about the TonalityGUIDE analysis tool kit Clefs, note labels, intervals and transposition
chord identification understanding voice-leading style awareness

The ToolKIT, which is accessible from all pages of the site, outlines the three main analytical skills that aims to develop. It also links to a short introduction to the study of tonality as well as a reminder of some basics (note and interval labels, clefs and transpositions).

Understanding Voice-leading
introduction general characteristics interval succession resolution of tension embellishing progressions

The notion of consonance and dissonance is vital for understanding the suggestion that there are tensions within tonal music that need to be resolved. According to the style of the music, tensions introduced by a dissonant note will tend to be introduced and resolved in certain ways.

In chord progressions without any embellishment (as in the simplified chorale examples on this page), many earlier tonal composers avoided excessively prominent dissonances by following two general guidelines:

  1. any dissonance is both introduced and resolved by descending stepwise motion (stepwise motion is when a voice moves by major or minor seconds)
  2. the dissonance appears on an unaccented part of the bar

Different tonal styles conform to these guidelines to different extents - as dissonances became more acceptable composers tended to treat them more freely. Nevertheless there are characteristic restrictions on the way in which dissonances are introduced and resolved that are common to many styles.

Two brief examples of voice-leading prescriptions follow. The embellishing progressions described in the final section of the voice-leading part of the tool kit show various way of decorating chord progression with dissonant notes. You will find many other examples in the main body of the site.

A seventh is considered dissonant in most tonal styles and therefore introduces a tension that needs to be resolved. Most tonal styles resolve the seventh by descending stepwise motion, but, as discussed in the style section of the ToolKIT, the extent to which composers followed the the voice-leading restrictions on sevenths gradually decreased over time.

The example below shows a dominant seventh chord in various inversions with the seventh being introduced and resolved by descending steps (the sevenths and their resolutions are shown in red). In each case the seventh resolves onto a a note consonant with the following chord, this is important because otherwise it would not resolve the tension of the dissonance:

Not sure about the chord labels? Refresh you memory with the chord identification part of the tool kit.

You might notice that in all the above examples, the seventh chords resolve to a chord a fifth below or a fourth above (the inversion of a fifth) - e.g. V-I I-IV. This is a harmonic rather than a voice-leading consideration and is discussed on the pages on sevenths.


The suspension is a way introducing a dissonant note on an accented part of the bar. The 4-3 suspension is one of the most commonly used. In this type of suspension, the third above the bass in a root position triad is delayed until the next beat by the introduction of the dissonant fourth above the bass.

In the example below, the third of the G major triad (b1) is preceded by the fourth above the bass (c2) which is dissonant with the fifth of the triad (if you are unfamiliar with giving notes a name and number - e.g. c2 - click on the basics button in the toolkit).

Suspensions follow the general guideline for resolution of tension that the dissonance should resolve downwards by step. It also introduces the dissonant note on an accented part of the bar so the suspensions must be introduced - or 'prepared' - by the suspended note appearing in the same voice in the previous chord.

In the example below, the c2 in the alto voice is prepared in the first chord, suspended in the second and resolved to b1 (downwards by step). The movement from the dissonant c2 to the consonant b1 is results in a pattern of tension-resolution.

The second half of this example helps show how the suspension derives from a chord progression with no dissonance. The tension of the suspended c2 is the result of delaying the alto voice in a chord progession from I to V. You will come across various other types of suspension in this website, particularly in examples taken from music by Arcangelo Corelli.
Notice that the convention is to name the voices in chords as if the music was for choir:
top voicesoprano
second from topalto
second from bottomtenor
bottom voicebass

Other Resolutions of tension
You will find many examples of tensions being resolvved in the rest of that do not involve dissonance. Leading notes have a tendency to resolve upwards by step and in some styles there are quite strict rules governing, for example, diminished seventh chords. What they have in common with suspensions and sevenths is that they are still basically concerned with the resolution of tension of one kind or another.

The Tonality GUIDE tonal music analysis tool kit
information and orientation as you browse around
chord identification
understanding voice-leading
style awareness

© Copyright Thomas Pankhurst

TonalityGUIDE - Tonal Harmony and Voiceleading - Table of Contents