VII. Popular Music

Fragile, Absent, and Emergent Tonics

Megan Lavengood

Key Takeaways

  • Most songs have a clear tonic.
  • Tonal ambiguity arises when there is not enough information to confidently assign a tonic chord.
  • Tonal ambiguity occurs in pop songs in one of three ways:
    • Fragile tonic: the tonic chord is used in the song but is weakened through inversion or another similar technique.
    • Emergent tonic: the tonic chord is withheld until a triumphant moment, such as the chorus.
    • Absent tonic: the tonic chord is implied through melodic and harmonic conventions, yet never explicitly stated.


Chapter Playlist

Although many pop songs are harmonically simple, using only a handful of chords in root position, this simplicity can sometimes lead to tonal ambiguity. One way that tonal ambiguity is created is through de-emphasizing the tonic chord. According to pop theorist Mark Spicer (2017), whose work is the basis of this chapter, much tonal ambiguity in pop music occurs through one of three techniques: fragile, absent, and emergent tonics.

Fragile tonic

The fragile tonic technique is one in which the tonic chord is used in the song, but is weakened through inversion or another similar technique. Fragile tonics can be found in music by artists who seem to have composed at the piano, as in Sufjan Stevens’s “Oh God Where Are You Now” (2003). The tonic chord, G♭, is most often in first inversion; it only appears in root position as an incomplete passing chord in the midst of a contrapuntal series of parallel tenths in the C phrase (Example 1). Otherwise, first-inversion E♭ minor chords are found where tonic chords may otherwise be expected.

Example 1. “Oh God Where Are You Now? (In Pickerel Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?)” by Sufjan Stevens uses a fragile tonic.

Fragile tonics usually connect to a theme in the lyrics of loneliness, vulnerability, and sensitivity. The Sufjan Stevens song in Example 1 follows this principle: the narrator in the lyrics seems to be desperate for comfort from God, and thus in a vulnerable state. Another example of a song that uses a fragile tonic to emphasize vulnerability is Elton John, “Somebody Saved My Life Tonight” (1975) (see Spicer 2017).

Emergent Tonics

Songs with emergent tonics withhold the tonic chord until a triumphant moment, such as the chorus. The song will begin by using other chords, especially the relative major/minor, some of which may sound like tonic at first; but later in the song, the true tonic is revealed to be another chord that either did not sound like tonic initially or was not present at all.

Emergent tonics often accompany lyrical themes of triumph and overcoming, and this is just what happens in “Let It Go” from the movie Frozen. Listen to the song while following the form chart below (Example 2), which explains how the tonic emerges. The emergent tonic here emphasizes the theme of Elsa overcoming her self-doubt and owning her identity.


timestamp section chord progression notes
0:00–0:14 intro Fmi–D♭–E♭–B♭(mi) At this point in the song, the tonality sounds like F aeolian (i–VI–VII–iv).

The B♭ chord alternates between minor and major in subsequent repetitions of this progression, and the third time this happens, it's used to lead into the next section.

0:15–0:42 verse
0:43–0:58 prechorus E♭–D♭ Now the tonality has shifted: E♭ sounds like tonic, which implies a key of E♭ mixolydian (I–♭VII). The B♭ chord that closed the previous verse, in retrospect, sounds like it was a V in E♭ mixolydian.

But this progression also gets turned around! The closing D♭ chord is prolonged at the end of the prechorus to lead into the next section.

0:59–1:26 chorus A♭–E♭–Fmi–D♭ A♭ major is triumphantly revealed as the emergent tonic. This means, in retrospect, that the ending D♭ of the prechorus was really a IV chord, leading into the singer/songwriter progression of the chorus (I–V–vi–IV).

(The end of the chorus also features a little chromatic diversion—after the last repetition of the singer/songwriter schema, the next chord is A♭/C followed by C♭ major, before resolving back up to the D♭).

1:27–1:31 interlude A♭–E♭/G A brief instrumental connects to the verse with a I–V progression…
1:32–1:44 verse Fmi–D♭–E♭–B♭mi Although this verse has the same progression as the first verse, because we've now heard the emergent tonic, the chords now sound more like vi–IV–V–ii instead. Similarly, the prechorus now sounds like a V–IV progression, building up energy toward the cadence by withholding the tonic (a classic prechorus function). The major tonality from the chorus still governs the song, even when the A♭ chord is missing.
1:45–1:59 prechorus E♭–D♭
2:00–2:25 chorus A♭–E♭–Fmi–D♭
2:26–3:01 bridge D♭———
The bridge lets D♭, E♭, and Fmi sound like tonic for a brief moment, but they are ultimately subsumed within the A♭ major tonality in the following chorus repeats.

(Notice how "I'm never going back" accompanies the verse progression heard at the outset of the song—"going back" to the opening progression!)

3:02–end chorus A♭–E♭–Fmi–D♭

Example 2. Form chart of “Let It Go.”

You could also understand this song as using a different key for each section—F aeolian for the verses, E♭ mixolydian for the prechoruses, and A♭ major for the choruses. This is certainly what seems to be going on when first listening to the intro and prechorus.

While that is a perfectly acceptable analysis, notice how analyzing this song as belonging entirely to A♭ major allows for a nice narrative parallel between the chord progression and the lyrics: In the first verse, Elsa (the singer) begins the song describing a bleak, cold night, accompanied in the harmony by chords that emphasize the vi chord instead of tonic. In the prechorus, as Elsa wrestles with a choice between pleasing society (“be the good girl”) or letting it go, she is accompanied by repeating IV and V chords increasingly demanding a resolution. Right when Elsa makes up her mind—she decides to “let it go”—A♭ major, the tonic, finally brings resolution to the oscillation between IV and V in the prechorus, underscoring Elsa’s inner transformation.

Another example of an emergent tonic is “Little Red Corvette” by Prince (1982), which seems to be in B♭ minor until D♭ emerges as the true tonic chord in the chorus (see Spicer 2017).

Absent Tonics

The most extreme manipulation of our sense of tonic occurs when a song has an absent tonic. An absent tonic never actually materializes as a heard harmony in the song, but instead is established only melodically and by using familiar harmonic progressions that do not involve the tonic.

“Last Friday Night” by Katy Perry (2012) is an example of a song with an absent tonic. The progression is very conventional—IV–ii–vi–V—but I never sounds. The melody, as can be seen in Example 3, strongly outlines F♯ major in the chorus, with repeated descending [latex]\hat3–\hat2–\hat1[/latex] (miredo) lines. This melody, combined with the familiarity of the chord progression, allows F♯ to sound like tonic even when it never occurs in the accompaniment.

Example 3. The chorus of “Last Friday Night” by Katy Perry.

As with fragile and emergent tonics, absent tonics can also be interpreted as representations of lyrical themes. In the case of “Last Friday Night,” the absent tonic may depict the disconnect between constant partying and a need to function in the real world.

Further reading
  1. Reharmonizing to avoid tonic (.pdf, .mscz). Asks students to reharmonize a song that uses the singer/songwriter schema to instead use fragile, absent, or emergent tonic techniques.


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