Tendency Tones


Understand basic tendency tones.

Tendency Tones

In order to make good chord progressions and voice leading we will need to understand how scale degrees tend to push and pull each other. We only have a few we really need to understand.

First, we must know that some parts of the scale are less “stable” than others. We can use this to create tension and release. The 1 chord is the most stable, another more stable or “restful” scale degree is the 4. After this follow the 3 and 6 and finally the least stable are the 2 and 7 and 5 which will not sound “resultful”. What I mean by that is how “final” a sound is. Ending on a one chord sounds very final, but ending on a 5 chord sounds unresolved and unfinal.

In general the leading tone of the scale, the 7th scale degree, wants to go up to the octave. This is the strongest tendency tone that occurs diatonically.

The 4 often goes to the 3 or 5, and the 2 can go to the 1 or 3, etc… There are many examples and cases. In general when making a progression we look at the notes in the chord and decide what note that chord should use based on if we are trying to create some more tension or “crunch” vs a more “smooth” resolved tone.

The role a particular pitch class plays is determined by the current position it's in and where it will resolve to in the next chord. For example, in C major an F going to E will have different meanings depending on the chords used.

Here are 2 examples of an F going to an E but they are in different contexts and so have different sounds to them. Similar to how we use words but combine them to get different points across. For example, “I ran home.” Resolves the word “run” to “home” and has one meaning, vs “I ran from home.” The word “run” still resolves to “home” but has a new meaning, we are getting a different “point” across, a different emotion. It all comes down to what you want to express.

For now I just want to have this idea in your head as you study. You will see this sort of reasoning come up from time and time and should know it comes back to these connections that happen from tendency tones. Sometimes we follow them and other times we deliberately obscure them.

At this point in your theory we have been very calculated, “make a C major triad”, make a “1 3 4 progression in D major”. There are more basic skills to come but you will increasingly see that “right answers” go away the further you go in harmony. To put it another way, construction workers may all be given the same hammer, but what they make can be wildly different.

To support this series please consider donating via


or joining the