Delay The Tonic | Songwriting Secret

Ahhhhh, Delayed Gratification. It’s used in many different ways. Today we are discussing it and how it creates chart topping Billboard Hits!

Delaying the Tonic

Remember that one kid back in the junior high choir room who would run over to the piano and play all the notes in a C Major scale except for last note and then he’d walk away from the piano? You would sit there and wait and wait until finally you or SOMEONE just had to run over to the piano and hit the final note completing the scale. Yeah, that guy? Well, that guy was me.

But what exactly was it about what I did that drove every in the choir room crazy and made someone complete it? Was it because they had OCD? No. Was it because we were all music theory nerds? No…well maybe. It was because our ears are so used to hearing The One ,a.k.a. ‘The Tonic’, of the completed scale. Scales are supposed to play full circle and when they are not, it can bother our musical ears. It doesn’t mean we have to even be a musician to be frustrated by this. Our society is so emerged in music that it follows a sonic pattern. When left unfulfilled, it can leave us with an unsettling feeling.

If you haven’t guessed it, today’s topic is Delayed Gratification or Delaying the Tonic. I’m going to show you how you can incorporate it into your songwriting to add a lot more interest and make it sound much more commercial which is good news if you are trying to write the next big hit.

You don’t have to be a music theory whiz to understand the concept of delayed gratification. If you understand chord progressions, then you should be able to apply what you learn in this blog.

Delayed Gratification is arranging the chord progression around the tonic or the ONE chord. Starting and ending a song with the ONE chord is expected and very common. To start a song on another chord creates a different sound to the ear and creates some excitement and interest for the listener. Because the ear is programmed to seek out the ONE chord (subconsciously), we are compelled to listen deeper to the songs that delay playing the ONE chord.

Delayed gratification has been used for decades all the way back to at least the 60’s. The Beatles used this in many of their songs. They just rearranged the typical chord progressions of the time which made their songs even more appealing than they already were. Songs like, Eleanor Rigby, All My Loving, and Hello Goodbye are examples of this.

That is a big part of what today’s songwriting tactic is. So many artists and bands are using them today. For you, this is great news. Since this chord arrangement is used in some of today’s biggest hits, you too can arrange your songs that delay the tonic and hold the listener’s interest longer.

Some of today’s biggest hits use this method. Check out these songs:

Song examples:

1. Sia – “Elastic Heart” – key of F#m (chord prog – D, A, E, F#m).
Elastic Heart is in the key of F#m but the chord progression starts on a D, goes to an A, and E and finally lands on a F#m.

2. Rhianna – “Diamonds” – key of Bm (Chord prog – G, Bm, A).
Rhianna’s Diamonds is in the key of Bm but starts on a G, then Bm, then A.

3. Taylor Swift – “Wildest Dreams” – key of Ab (chord prog – Db, Fm, Eb) for verse. The chorus finally hits the tonic (Ab, Eb, Bbm, Db). This is a long time to delay the ONE chord. It builds the listener’s anticipation and when the really “catchy” chorus comes in, it starts on the Tonic. Ah, finally some resolution!

4. Justin Bieber – “Sorry” – key of Eb (chord prog – Ab, Cm, Bb, Fm, Ab, Bb). This song NEVER, EVER, HITS TONIC! What? How can this be? Well, the answer to this question goes in a bit deeper to music theory or at least you need to know your key signatures. If you don’t, just trust me and watch the video I associated with this blog. I play the example songs. If you happen to know your key signatures, you can match up the melody. Justin sings to the notes in the key of Eb and not any other key.
Now that you have read (and hopefully watched and heard) my examples, you now know about delayed gratification in music and songwriting. How can you incorporate this method into your songs? My advice is to play around with it. See what works and what sounds good. You never know, you might just write the next big hit.

I look forward to reading all of your comments, questions, and methods of your own.

Until next week my musician friends, keep on playing!

Your friend in music,

-Michael

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