Leading Tone
Get Leading Tone essential facts below. View Videos or join the Leading Tone discussion. Add Leading Tone to your PopFlock.com topic list for future reference or share this resource on social media.
Leading Tone
Seventh scale degree, or leading-tone, leading to the first scale degree, or tonic, in C major About this sound Play EQ  About this sound Play Just .

In music theory, a leading-note (also subsemitone, and called the leading-tone in the US) is a note or pitch which resolves or "leads" to a note one semitone higher or lower, being a lower and upper leading-tone, respectively.

More narrowly, the leading tone is the seventh scale degree of the major scale, with a strong affinity for and leading melodically to the tonic (Benward and Saker 2003, 203). It is sung as ti in movable-do solfège. For example, in the C major scale (white keys on a piano, starting on C), the leading note is the note B; and the leading note chord uses the notes B, D, and F: a diminished triad. In music theory, the leading note triad is symbolized by the Roman numeral vii°, while the leading-tone seventh chord may be viio7 or viiø7.

Upper leading-tone

Tritone substitution, ii-subV-I on C, creates an upper leading-note (D, which leads down to C) About this sound play 
Melodic upper leading-tone in Brahms, Op. 56 (1873) (Forte 1979, 14) About this sound Play melody  or About this sound Play with accompaniment 
Cadence featuring an upper leading tone from a well known 16th-century lamentation, the debate over which was documented in Rome c.1540 (Berger 1987, 148). About this sound Play upper-leading tone trill  About this sound Play diatonic trill 

By contrast, an upper leading-tone (Berger 1987, 148; Coker 1991, 50), which leads down, may be found as the seventh of the dominant seventh chord (scale degree four), which leads to the third (degree three) of the tonic chord (in C: F of a G7 chord leads to E of a CM chord). The upper leading-tone may also be found above the tonic, on D in C.

Seventh chord resolution from Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" (1899) (Benward and Saker 2003, 203) About this sound Play . Note that the seventh resolves down by half step.

The subdominant (in C: F) may be considered a leading tone to the mediant (in C: E) melodically, without the tritone it is part of in a dominant seventh chord.


According to Ernst Kurth (1913, 119-736) the major and minor thirds contain "latent" tendencies towards the perfect fourth and whole-tone, respectively, and thus establish tonality. However, Carl Dahlhaus (1990, 44-47) contests Kurth's position, holding that this drive is in fact created through or with harmonic function, a root progression in another voice by a whole-tone or fifth, or melodically (monophonically) by the context of the scale. For example, the leading note of alternating C chord and F minor chords is either the note E leading to F, if F is tonic, or A leading to G, if C is tonic. In works from the 14th- and 15th-century Western tradition, the leading-note is created by the progression from imperfect to perfect consonances, such as a major third to a perfect fifth or minor third to a unison. The same pitch outside of the imperfect consonance is not a leading note.

Forte (1979, 11-2) claims that the leading-tone is only one example of a more general tendency: the strongest progressions, melodic and harmonic, are by half step. He suggests that one play a G major scale and stop on the seventh note (F) to personally experience the feeling of lack caused by the "particularly strong attraction" of the seventh note to the eighth (F->G'), thus its name.

Secondary leading-tone (F to G) in Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 21, 1st mov. (Berry 1987, 55) About this sound Play 

As a diatonic function the leading-note is the seventh scale degree of any diatonic scale when the distance between it and the tonic is a single semitone. In diatonic scales where there is a whole tone between the seventh scale degree and the tonic, such as the Mixolydian mode, the seventh degree is called, instead, the subtonic. However, in modes without a leading-tone, such as Dorian and Mixolydian, a raised seventh is often featured during cadences (Benward and Saker 2009, 4), such as with harmonic minor. A secondary leading-tone is a leading-tone from outside the current scale, briefly tonicizing what is usually a scale tone (Berry 1987, 55).


Tonic and leading tone chords in C About this sound Play . C major and B diminished (b°) chords. About this sound Play just leading tone chord 
Dominant seventh and incomplete dominant seventh in C major: G7 and b° chords About this sound Play .
Leading-tone chord in C major and C minor About this sound play .
Leading-tone and secondary leading-tone triads (Forte 1979, 122) About this sound Play 

In music theory, a leading-tone chord is a triad built on the seventh scale-degree in major and the raised seventh-scale-degree in minor (the leading-tone). "The leading tone triad is a diminished triad; it occurs in both major and minor modes" (Benjamin, Horvit & Nelson 2008, 106). The quality of the leading-tone triad is diminished in both major and minor keys. The leading-tone seventh chords are viiø7 in major and viio7 in minor (Benward and Saker 2003, 219).

The subtonic [leading-tone] chord is founded upon seven (the leading tone) of the major key, and is a diminished chord...The subtonic chord is very much neglected by many composers, and possibly a little overworked by others. Its occasional use gives character and dignity to a composition.

On the whole, the chord has a poor reputation. Its history, in brief, seems to be: Much abused and little used. (Herbert 1897, 102)

Some sources say the chord is not a chord; some sources say it is an incomplete dominant seventh, especially in its first inversion (resembling the second inversion dominant seventh) (Herbert 1897, 102).

The subtonic [leading-tone] chord is a very common chord and a useful one. The triad differs in formation from the preceding six [major and minor diatonic] triads. It is dissonant and active...a diminished triad. The subtonic chord belongs to the dominant family. The factors of the triad are the same tones as the three upper factors of the dominant seventh chord and progress in the same manner. These facts have led many theorists to call this triad a 'dominant seventh chord without root.'...The subtonic chord in both modes has suffered much criticism from theorists although it has been and is being used by masters. It is criticized as being 'overworked', and that much can be accomplished with it with a minimum of technique. (Gardner 1918, 48, 50)


Tritone resolution inward and outwards About this sound Play inward  About this sound Play outwards . Both notes resolve by half step.

Since the leading-tone triad is diminished, it is rarely found in root position. Instead, it is commonly found in first inversion. In a four-part chorale texture, the third of the leading-tone triad is doubled in order to avoid adding emphasis to the tritone created by the root and the fifth. Unlike a dominant where the leading-tone can be frustrated and not resolve to the tonic if it is in an inner voice, the leading-tone in a leading-tone triad must resolve to the tonic. Commonly the fifth of the triad resolves down since it is phenomenologically similar to the seventh in a dominant seventh chord.

"The first inversion of the triad is considered, by many, preferable to root position. The second inversion of the triad is unusual. Some theorists forbid its use." (Gardner 1918, 48-9) "VII occurs most often in its first inversion." (Goldman 1965, 72) "The chord of the sub-tonic is almost never used except in its first inversion." (Root 1872, 315) "Like II [iio] in minor, it occurs rarely in fundamental position. When represented by its first inversion it often stands between I and I6." (Forte 1979, 122)

On the other hand, the leading-tone seventh chord does appear in root position. For this reason, outside of the two uses listed below, a leading-tone triad is less common than a leading-tone seventh chord.


The leading-tone triad is used in several functions. Commonly, it is used as a passing chord between a root position tonic triad and a first inversion tonic triad (Aldwell, Schachter, and Cadwallader 2010, 138)"In addition to its basic function of passing between I and I6, VII6 has another important function: it can form a neighboring chord to I or I6.". The leading-tone triad prolongs tonic through neighbor and passing motion in this instance.

viio6 as substitute for V4
in Beethoven (Forte 1979, 169) About this sound Play  and About this sound Play with full dominant seventh  (add C)
in baroque music by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (Benward and Saker 2003, 220) About this sound Play 

The leading-tone triad may also be regarded as an incomplete dominant seventh chord: "A chord is called 'incomplete' when its root is omitted. This omission occurs, occasionally, in the chord of the dom.-seventh, and the result is a triad upon the leading-tone" (Goetschius 1917, 72, §162-63, 165). The viio7 chord is often considered a, "dominant ninth chord without root" (Gardner 1918, 49).(Goldman 1965, 72) Since it contains three common tones with a dominant seventh chord, it easily can replace and function as a dominant. For example, viio6 often substitutes for V4
, which it closely resembles (in C: D, F, B versus D, F, G, B), and its use may be required in situations by voice leading: "In a strict four-voice texture, if the bass is doubled by the soprano, the VII6 [viio6] is required as a substitute for the V4
." (Forte 1979, 168). When used at a cadence point, the leading-tone triad creates an imperfect authentic cadence since there is no root motion from scale-degree 5 to scale-degree 1 in the bass. This type of cadence was used commonly in the Renaissance era but increasingly grew out of fashion as the common practice period progressed. Leading-tone seventh chords were not characteristic of Renaissance music but are typical of baroque and classical music, they are used more freely in romantic music but began to be used less in classical music as conventions of tonality broke down, but are integral to ragtime and contemporary popular and jazz music genres (Benward and Saker 2003, 220-2).

Seventh chord

Leading-tone seventh chord in C major: viiø7About this sound Play 
Leading-tone seventh chord in C minor: viio7About this sound Play 
Leading-tone seventh chord resolution in C major: viiø7-I About this sound Play 
Diminished seventh chord resolution: both diminished fifths tend to resolve inward, doubling the third of the tonic chord About this sound Play  About this sound Play 
Leading-tone diminished seventh chords in Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 5 opening (Benward and Saker 2003, 219-20) About this sound Play 

In music theory, the leading-tone seventh chords are viiø7 and viio7 (Benward and Saker 2003, 218-9), the half-diminished and diminished seventh chords on the seventh scale degree, or leading-tone, in major and harmonic minor, resolving to the tonic. Leading-tone triads and seventh chords are frequently substituted for dominant chords, with which they have three common tones, for variety (Benward and Saker 2003, 217).

Leading-tone seventh chord as dominant in Mozart's Don Giovanni, K. 527, Act I, Scene XIII (Benward and Saker 2003, 219) About this sound Play 

"The seventh chord founded upon the subtonic [in major]...is occasionally used. It resolves directly to the tonic...This chord may be employed without preparation" (Herbert 1897, 135).

Leading-tone half-diminished seventh chord in Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 6, K. 284 (Benward and Saker 2003, 221) About this sound Play 

The leading-tone seventh chord is half diminished in C major (B-D-F-A) and fully diminished in C minor (B-D-F-A). However, composers throughout the Common practice period often employed modal mixture when using the leading-tone seventh chord in a major key, allowing for the substitution of the half-diminished seventh chord for the fully diminished seventh chord. This mixture is commonly used when the leading-tone seventh chord is functioning as a secondary leading-tone chord. The leading-tone seventh chord contrasts with the subtonic seventh chord in that the subtonic has a flatted seventh (chord root): in C minor, B-D-F-A. The leading-tone seventh chord has a dominant function and may be used in place of V or V7 (Benjamin, Horvit & Nelson 2008, 128).

Leading-tone seventh chord as equivalent to the dominant in Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 5, mov. III (Benward and Saker 2003, 218) About this sound Play 

Fétis tunes the leading-tone seventh in major 5:6:7:9 (Fétis & Arlin 1994, 139n9).

Leading-tone seventh chord as dominant in Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 5, mov. I (Benward and Saker 2003, 217) About this sound Play 

See also


  • Aldwell, Edward, Carl Schachter, and Allen Cadwallader (2010). Harmony and Voice-Leading, fourth edition. New York: Schirmer/Cengage Learning. ISBN 9780495189756
  • Benjamin, Thomas; Horvit, Michael; and Nelson, Robert (2008). Techniques and Materials of Music. 7th edition. Thomson Schirmer. ISBN 978-0-495-18977-0.
  • Benward, Bruce, and Marilyn Nadine Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, seventh edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0.
  • Benward, Bruce, and Marilyn Nadine Saker (2009). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. II, Eighth edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-310188-0.
  • Berger, Karol (1987). Musica Ficta: Theories of Accidental Inflections in Vocal Polyphony from Marchetto da Padova to Gioseffo Zarlino. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-32871-3 (cloth); ISBN 0-521-54338-X (pbk).
  • Berry, Wallace (1976/1987). Structural Functions in Music. Dover. ISBN 0-486-25384-8.
  • Coker, Jerry (1991). Elements of the Jazz Language for the Developing Improvisor. Miami, Fla.: CCP/Belwin, Inc. ISBN 1-57623-875-X.
  • Dahlhaus, Carl (1990). Studies on the Origin of Harmonic Tonality, trans. Robert O. Gjerdingen. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-09135-8.
  • Fétis, François-Joseph and Arlin, Mary I. (1994). Esquisse de l'histoire de l'harmonie. ISBN 978-0-945193-51-7.
  • Forte, Allen (1979). Tonal Harmony. Third edition. Holt, Rinhart, and Winston. ISBN 0-03-020756-8.
  • Gardner, Carl Edward (1918). Music Composition: A New Method of Harmony. Carl Fischer. [ISBN unspecified].
  • Goetschius, Percy (1917). The Theory and Practice of Tone-Relations: An Elementary Course of Harmony, 21st edition. New York: G. Schirmer.
  • Goldman, Richard Franko (1965). Harmony in Western Music. Barrie & Jenkins/W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-214-66680-8.
  • Herbert, John Bunyan (1897). Herbert's Harmony and Composition. Fillmore Music. [ISBN unspecified].
  • Kurth, Ernst (1913). Die Voraussetzungen der theoretischen Harmonik und der tonalen Darstellungssysteme. Bern: Akademische Buchhandlung M. Drechsel. Unaltered reprint edition, with an afterword by Carl DahlhausMunich: E. Katzbichler, 1973. ISBN 3-87397-014-7.
  • Root, George Frederick (1872). The Normal Musical Hand-book. J. Church. [ISBN unspecified].
  • Stainer, John, and William Alexander Barrett (eds.) (1876). A Dictionary of Musical Terms. London: Novello, Ewer and Co. New and revised edition, London: Novello & Co, 1898.

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



Music Scenes