Posted in For Project 14, Uncategorized

Project 14 Research 1: The Musical Concept of Dominant

Project 14 is about constructing a piece based on a prolonged dominant chord, postponing the resolution to tonic until the very end of the short composition. And so, I decided to write a short post about the concept of dominant.

In the Western tonal music, dominant is the fifth degree of a diatonic scale, the name coming from the fact that it is very powerful and ‘dominates’ the melody and harmony of a key, being second in importance, right after the tonic – the keynote to which it has a strong tendency to resolve into. Cohn (2010: 186) even parallels the dominant and tonic with the two quarrelling warriors, each trying to establish and maintain its importance over the other, calling dominant the active and tonic the passive of the two:

“And while the Dominant stands up against the Tonic, trying to steal the crown from its head, maintaining that it is the ruler that is the most important tone, the Tonic remains calm, knowing quiet well that it is the Tonic that is the beginning, and what is much more important, the end, of all the tonal compositions.”

Cohn (2010: 186) further includes other analogies for tonic and dominant, for example them being two sides of one coin, or the subject and predicate of the spoken language. Either way, you can take a look at my post here, where I discuss the perfect 5th and the tonic/dominant relationship further.

In order for other degrees to temporarily gain the role of the tonic – in a musical process called tonicization, the dominants of those degrees are used, called the secondary dominants, and their chords produce the majority of accidentals found in diatonic music. (Apel, 1958: 240) Beside the triad, most commonly used dominant chords are 7th, 9th, 11th and 13th. Finally, due to the many common pitches, the shift from tonic to dominant key is also among the most common modulations found in the tonal music.

In closing, I should also mention that before the Western tonal system, in the plainchant tradition, the tone of a mode that dominated the melodies, and used as the recitation note, was called tenor. Although it is the fifth degree of the authentic modes (except mode 3), the plagal modes have their tenors on the third degree (except mode 4 and 8). (Apel, 1958: 211) More about that and the plainchant in general, you can read my posts from Part 2 of the course here. Furthermore, outside of the Western system, the concept of the dominant also exists, however in a different way. For example, in the system of Arabic maqamat, the modes are formed from trichords, tetrachords or pentachords called jins, and depending on that, the first note of the upper jins is the dominant – which can often be the fifth, but also the fourth and the sixth degree of the mode. I also wrote about the Arabic maqamat in the second part of the course here.

To conclude, the concept of the dominant is essential to the Western tonal system, but also in other musical traditions, such as the earlier Western plainchant and the Arabic maqamat. Next, I will write about the drone in Western music and Wagner’s Prelude to Das Rheingold. Lastly, take a look at the Project 14 I wrote here.


Apel, W. (1958) Gregorian Chant. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Cohn, M. S. (2010) The Mission and Message of Music: Building Blocks to the Aesthetics of Music in our Time. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

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