Definition of tonal in US English:



  • 1Relating to the tone of music, color, or writing.

    ‘his ear for tonal color’
    ‘the poem's tonal lapses’
    • ‘The gorgeous tonal colors of this music have rarely glistened so brightly!’
    • ‘His formula gives an exceptionally brilliant tonal rendition and a very cool image color.’
    • ‘The colors are primaries and secondaries, rich and tonal, with an occasional warm gray or black thrown in.’
    • ‘Her subtle shading, elegant phrasing, and expressive tonal colors were even more impressive.’
    • ‘A lack of warm cantabile tone, tone subtleties and tonal gradation impoverished the rich melodic lines of the mentioned works.’
    • ‘His sense of rhythmic freedom, elasticity of phrasing, romantic ardor, and caressing tonal hues set a new standard for the four Chopin Ballades.’
    • ‘Her beautiful tonal shadings made the 1912 cycle Coleccion de Tonadillas Escritas en Estilo Antiguo by Enrique Granados a musical delight.’
    • ‘All this music needs is a virtuoso with technique to burn and a grand array of tonal colors.’
    • ‘The attractive tonal colours derived from some fresh sounding natural horns and focused woodwind, as well as a superb string tone.’
    • ‘One rule of thumb is that muted pinks in the warmer tonal families will generally flatter almost any skin color or tone regardless of age.’
    • ‘She manages beautifully subtle shifts in tempo without crossing over into the soupy, and she applies a large palette of tonal color tastefully.’
    • ‘It is always refreshing to experience an outstanding début concert, especially when the artists display a balance of tonal beauty with insightful involving musicianship.’
    • ‘Backgrounds become darker and colours more tonal.’
    • ‘Feldman specifies many tonal colors that the musicians go to pains to reproduce accurately and engagingly.’
    • ‘His dazzling virtuosity and sweeping tonal palette made the music truly live.’
    • ‘Eschewing the brilliant primaries of his still lifes of the 1920s, he limits himself to only a few colours, creating a tonal harmony closer perhaps to the work of fellow Iona painter George Houston than to the other colourists.’
    • ‘Putting that aside and simply listening to the sound itself, one hears a voice of remarkable purity and tonal beauty along with a command of style and color that any singer would kill for.’
    • ‘But both composers weave melodic material and unusual tonal colors in a way that is accessible, and worthy of repeated listening.’
    • ‘The Schubert was likewise a weaving of wonderful tonal colors and pianistic power.’
    • ‘I always went along when Dad played the organ and one day I started helping to pull the registers, something that maybe had an early influence on the choice of tonal colors that now play an important role in my job.’
    1. 1.1 Relating to music written using conventional keys and harmony.
      • ‘This process could not go on indefinitely, and in 1908 Schoenberg made the break into atonality, abandoning the attempt to fit atonal harmonies into tonal forms.’
      • ‘It sounded a bit like a tonal American symphony written by a Russian who knows his Britten.’
      • ‘In this respect he forms the link between Wagner and Schoenberg, who was soon to complete the destruction of classical tonal harmony.’
      • ‘This makes it difficult for contemporary composers to write interesting new tonal music without evoking a film score of some sort.’
      • ‘Add to that the fact that I love Massenet because his music is tonal and well harmonised, and you have some idea of my style.’
    2. 1.2Phonetics (of a language) expressing semantic differences by varying the intonation given to words or syllables of a similar sound.
      • ‘Vietnamese is a tonal language; the meanings of words are determined by the pitch or tone at which the words are spoken.’
      • ‘The point of a talking drum is to make noises which sound like words spoken in a tonal language - like Yoruba.’
      • ‘Also, Chinese is a tonal language, which means that words change meaning depending on whether they're said with a rising tone, falling tone, falling then rising, or flat.’
      • ‘The pronunciation is quite similar to Italian; there are no tones to trouble learners, as with Chinese, Vietnamese and other tonal languages; and the grammar is easier than German.’
      • ‘Chinese is a tonal language: words are differentiated not just by sounds but by whether the intonation is rising or falling.’


Late 18th century (designating church music in plainsong mode): from medieval Latin tonalis, from Latin tonus (see tone).