In music theory we get lots of terms to describe the details of music so it’s important to know exactly what they mean. In this lesson we’re going to look at two basic but important terms: the tonic and the root. We’re going to learn what they are and we’ll examine the differences between them. 

So is tonic the same as root? No, the tonic is not the same as the root. While the tonic is the fundamental, ‘home’ note of scales and keys, the root is the fundamental note of chords and arpeggios.

Sometimes the tonic and the root do happen to be the same note, but that’s because of how music works not because the two terms mean the same thing! Let’s look a little deeper. 


How Music Works, in brief

In order to understand what these terms are and why we need them, let’s have a quick look at how musical notes are organised in a piece of music. 

The Musical Alphabet and Scales

As you know, there are 12 notes in the musical alphabet named after the first 7 letters of the English alphabet: A to G. The other 5 are named with sharps and flats. It’s quite simple to visualise these 12 notes because the piano is neatly arranged in a recurring pattern of 12 keys.

Here is one instance of the pattern containing 7 white keys plus 5 black keys:

One octave in a keyboard consisting of 12 notes: 7 white keys plus 5 black keys
One octave in a keyboard consisting of 12 notes: 7 white keys plus 5 black keys

Now out of these 12 notes, composers and musicians tend to use only a handful at a time. The musicians of ancient cultures discovered that to achieve a certain mood or a particular character, we can pick and choose which notes to use. The result, of course, is that different sets of notes can be used for different purposes. 

Over time these sets of notes developed into our major and minor scale system we use today. The major and minor scales are a group of 7 notes laid out in a specific pattern. No matter which note a major or a minor scale begins on, the pattern will always be the same. 

The scale of C major
The scale of C major

As we learn in this lesson about tonality, music in the major-minor scale system works because it revolves around a fundamental note – the note where the music is stable and at rest. Let’s say, it’s the note that feels like ‘home’. Every scale has its own ‘home’ note and without wanting to, listeners are always expecting the music to come back ‘home’ (to resolve). 

That fundamental, ‘home’ note is known as the tonic. Everything that happens in the music is either moving towards it or moving away from it. And this is what creates the musical ‘story’ or the ‘drama’. 

Scales and Chords

Any set of notes (any scale) can be used in two basic ways: 

  1. Melodically: the notes are arranged one after another to create melodies;
  2. Harmonically: the notes are arranged on top of each other to create chords;

We discuss the melodic vs. harmonic aspect of music in this guide about 4-part harmony but for now, here’s a simple example using the notes of C major. Using the same exact notes, we have a melody using and then some chords:

Melody and chords using the same notes from the same scale.
Melody and chords using the same notes from the same scale

This is where it gets interesting. Just like melodies, chords are built using the notes of the scale in use at the moment. The most basic chords consist of 3 notes and since they are built on thirds, they’re known also as triads

What does ‘built on thirds’ mean? 

A chord built on thirds means that the distance between its notes is always of 3 notes (or ‘steps’). So if we wanted to build a chord on the note ‘C’, then we get C – E – G. That’s because the note ‘E’ is three steps above ‘C’ and the note ‘G’ is three steps above ‘E’. As this diagram shows, we’re still getting all our notes from the scale itself. 

Triads are built on thirds.
Triads are built on thirds

This is where the term root comes in. The 3 notes that make up a chord such as this one are labelled root, third and fifth. 

Now we can use this pattern of building chords from scales to build a chord on every note of the scale. Every chord has a its own root, a third above the root and the fifth above the root. ‘R – 3 – 5’ in short.

Triads are built on 3rds - with Root, third and fifth
Triads are built on 3rds – with Root, third and fifth

On a side note, the notes of a chord are often played after each other like a melody but our ears can still recognise them as belonging together. When the notes of a chord are played separately, it is known as an arpeggio. Basic arpeggios, just like triads, consist of root, third and fifth (even if the notes don’t appear in this order in the music). 

The notes of a chord (root, third and fifth) are often spread out into an 'arpeggio'
The notes of a chord (root, third and fifth) are often spread out into an ‘arpeggio’

This is the difference between the tonic and the root. The tonic is the fundamental home note of the scale. The root is the basis of a chord. 

Also notice how important the tonic and root are – scales get their name from their own tonic and chords get their name from their own root!


When are Root and Tonic the same?

The tonic and the root are the same note when we build a chord on the first note of the scale. Here’s the scale of F major followed by the chord of F major. Since the note ‘F’ is the first note of the scale, it is the tonic. But since the note F is also the basis of the chord, it is also the root. 

The note F is the tonic of the F major scale and the root of the F major chord.
The note F is the tonic of the F major scale and the root of the F major chord.


Examples and Exercises

1. Here is the scale of D major with triads built on every note:

Triads built on the scale of D major
Triads built on the scale of D major

Answer these questions based on the D major scale above: 

  1. Which note is the tonic here? 
  2. What is the root of the chord labelled * ?
  3. What is the root of the chord labelled ** ? 

2. Here is the scale of G minor with triads built on every note:

Triads built on the scale of G minor
Triads built on the scale of G minor

Answer these questions based on the G minor scale above:

  1. Which note is the tonic here? 
  2. What is the root of the chord labelled * ?
  3. What is the root of the chord labelled ** ? 

3. Here is the scale of E flat major with triads built on every note: 

Triads built on the scale of E flat major.
Triads built on the scale of E flat major

Answer these questions based on the E flat major scale above: 

  1. Which note is the tonic here? 
  2. What is the root of the chord labelled * ? 
  3. What is the root of the chord labelled ** ?

4. Here is the scale of B minor with triads built on every note: 

Triads built on the scale of B minor.
Triads built on the scale of B minor

Answer these questions based on the B minor scale above: 

  1. Which note is the tonic?
  2. What is the root of the chord labelled * ? 
  3. What is the root of the chord labelled ** ?  

schoolofcomposition.com

Answers: 

  1. D major: D, G, B
  2. G minor: G, C, B flat
  3. E flat major: E flat, F, D
  4. B minor: B, B, E

Common Questions about Root and Tonic

What is the difference between the tonic, the root and the bass note? 

As we’ve learned, the tonic is the fundamental note of a scale and the root is the basis of a chord. The bass note, on the other hand, is simply the lowest note at any one moment.

Which other basic terms should I know to learn more music theory? 

This depends on your goals in music but I suggest going to this lesson about the technical names in music. These terms are just as important as they will help you build a foundation in music theory.