Miscommunications & Misconceptions About “Tonicization”

Email to a Student About “Tonicization”

This was written after a lesson with a student of mine, who also takes music classes at his college.
In one of those classes, his teacher had apparently been talking a lot about “tonicizing”. This somehow led that student, to think more of this term than it is. I sent the student this email to further solidify points I had made during a prior lesson with me, in which I had had to steer him away from the confusion he caused for himself by his use of the term ‘tonicization”.

Here’s my email.

One final quick, but really important (I think) note about “tonicization” which might clear up a lot, and open up a lot of new deeper understanding about it.

So interestingly enough… the explanation given on Wikipedia reinforces the points I was making about the term being a term that (to me, for whatever that is worth haha) seems overused for no reason, or that is overcomplicating things, adding extra weight also to my reference to George Carlin’s hysterical take on the naming of things and the (oftentimes misguided) importance people sometimes attach to those names.

So.. here’s a quick copy of the definition as given on Wikipedia, that definition being consistent across the board with other resources on the internet covering this.

In music, tonicization is the treatment of a pitch other than the overall tonic (the “home note” of a piece) as a temporary tonic in a composition. In Western music that is tonal, the song or piece is heard by the listener as being in a certain key. A tonic chord has a dominant chord; in the key of C major, the tonic chord is C major and the dominant chord is G major or G dominant seventh.

The dominant chord, especially if it is a dominant seventh, is heard by Western composers and listeners familiar with music as resolving (or “leading”) to the tonic, due to the use of the leading note in the dominant chord. A tonicized chord is a chord other than the tonic chord to which a dominant or dominant seventh chord progresses. When a dominant chord or dominant seventh chord is used before a chord other than the tonic, this dominant or dominant seventh chord is called a secondary dominant.[2] When a chord is tonicized, this makes this non-tonic chord sound temporarily like a tonic chord.

That above definition kind of reinforces the point I was bringing up about people sometimes using and/or making up unnecessary words and terms to unnecessarily explain things that don’t really need to be explained lol or that only make things more complicated haha. Which is prob why no teachers in my many years in conservatory + Berklee + MI never used the term “tonicization” or “tonicize” haha. 🙂

Case in point: the way you used the word “tonicize” in our lesson today every time you communicate something that had the word in it… you use the word “tonicize” as “something you do”… implying that it is something you “set up” or “accomplish”… as in: “you tonicize a chord”.

HOWEVER…. VERY INTERESTING: all the theory I read about that specific term including this Wikipedia post I copied the above from… ALL explain the term “tonizice”, by using secondary dominants as an example to explain what tonicizing means. Hence, conclusion: tonicizing is not “something you do”… it is just simply something “you get”, or in other words, something “that happens” or “ s perceived”, when you set up (meaning: interject/add/use) a secondary dominant. (which you would do to create forward motion). The above definition and other ones I saw online… all make this very clear.

Your goal with that secondary dominant, meaning the reason why you decided to use a secondary dominant in a song, your objective… was NOT to “tonicize” a chord. You didn’t actively with full intent pursue the use of a secondary dominant just to “tonicize” something. Nobody ever does that, meaning: “that would or should never be “a goal” during the process of writing a song or composition”. 🙂

You, however, choose or decide to use a secondary dominant, because you feel or the song tells you that you want or it needs stronger forward momentum there. Your goal is creating forward motion, momentum, and tension… not “tonicizing”

The goal is to write a story when you write a song. One of the tools to create a sense of accelerated pace or forward motion in your song is the use of secondary dominants. “Tonicizing” is neither a goal, nor a tool, nor something you would deliberately intent, nor a composition technique, etc… it’s just a word to describe something that happens when you do something else. (In this case: using secondary dominants)

THAT is part of why I got confused over you using that term so much in your communications today, “as something you do”.
As an example, you asked: “how do you tonicize in a solo?”

Nobody ever “tonicizes” in a solo or “‘tonicizes” in a song… and it appeared and seems from everything you were explaining and how you were using the word, that that is how your teachers have taught you about the word… making it appear in their teachings like this is some big, important concept you “need to know about so you can apply it”.
This is confusing for a student.

As discussed above: “it isn’t something you actually “use” or “apply”.
And in that specific regard, the way you were using that term and the way you were communicating it to me, prob ALL explain why no teachers of mine ever used that term in their teachings.

The reason they never did in that specific regard, is that: “tonicizing” isn’t something you do. It’s a term that merely describes something you perceive when you use secondary dominants, where the chord the dominant resolves to, feels a bit like a new I (one) chord for a very brief moment. This is also how my teachers communicated it, which I think is a more clear explanation, with more clarity than any explanation with the word “tonicize” in it could ever communicate.

Hope this helps. 🙂


The reason for posting a copy of the email I sent that student on my blog here, is that you now know about “tonicization”.
In recap: it’s basically the name given to how a chord that is NOT the I (one) chord of the key/scale, temporarily sounds like a I chord, because you preceded that chord by its dominant chord, creating a V I feel into that chord.

For example, in the key of C.

C A7 Dm G7

The A7 is a secondary dominant wanting to resolve down a 5th to the Dm chord. Dm is the II chord in the key (we’re in the key of C).
In this case, based on all the above explanations one could say that the Dm chord sounds (meaning: “is being perceived”) briefly as a new I chord (as if we quickly and temporarily moved to the key of Dm). We get a V I feel there, A7 Dm.

“Tonicize” means something that is not the I chord, being made to feel like being a I chord by preceding it by its dominant. The Dm chord was “tonicized” when we put the A7 chord before it.
I did not “tonicize” though as an active goal: “tonicization” is just the name for what happened to the Dm chord feel and perception wise, when I actively tried to create more forward momentum and motion in the chord progress by preceding the Dm chord with a chord that wants to resolve to it, its dominant chord.

Important to note, we never left the key of C. The Dm chord is still the II chord: it just takes on a bit of a I feel within the chord progression, because of the secondary dominant preceding it.


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