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’
    • ‘His dazzling virtuosity and sweeping tonal palette made the music truly live.’
    • ‘A lack of warm cantabile tone, tone subtleties and tonal gradation impoverished the rich melodic lines of the mentioned works.’
    • ‘All this music needs is a virtuoso with technique to burn and a grand array of tonal colors.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘Her subtle shading, elegant phrasing, and expressive tonal colors were even more impressive.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘His sense of rhythmic freedom, elasticity of phrasing, romantic ardor, and caressing tonal hues set a new standard for the four Chopin Ballades.’
    • ‘She manages beautifully subtle shifts in tempo without crossing over into the soupy, and she applies a large palette of tonal color tastefully.’
    • ‘Backgrounds become darker and colours more tonal.’
    • ‘The attractive tonal colours derived from some fresh sounding natural horns and focused woodwind, as well as a superb string tone.’
    • ‘The colors are primaries and secondaries, rich and tonal, with an occasional warm gray or black thrown in.’
    • ‘Her beautiful tonal shadings made the 1912 cycle Coleccion de Tonadillas Escritas en Estilo Antiguo by Enrique Granados a musical delight.’
    • ‘Feldman specifies many tonal colors that the musicians go to pains to reproduce accurately and engagingly.’
    • ‘The gorgeous tonal colors of this music have rarely glistened so brightly!’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘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.’
    • ‘It is always refreshing to experience an outstanding début concert, especially when the artists display a balance of tonal beauty with insightful involving musicianship.’
    • ‘His formula gives an exceptionally brilliant tonal rendition and a very cool image color.’
    1. 1.1 Relating to music written using conventional keys and harmony.
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘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.’
    2. 1.2Phonetics (of a language) expressing semantic differences by varying the intonation given to words or syllables of a similar sound.
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘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.’
      • ‘Chinese is a tonal language: words are differentiated not just by sounds but by whether the intonation is rising or falling.’
      • ‘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.’


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