Harmonic Functions

We’ve already covered some aspect of function when talking about phrases and the functions of certain parameters.

Function can be thought of as the “role that particular musical element plays in the creation of a larger musical unit.” (read more on musical functions)

As such, chords have functions in how they behave: some tend to lead to others. Some create tension that needs to be resolve. Depending on the style, these behaviors may vary. All in all, when you listen to music, there is a specific context that leads you to expect certain behaviors – this is based on the harmonic functions that are instantiated in the musical style.

To Read:


Some Important Terms (from Shaffer Readings):

  • Function: Describes the role (behavior) that a particular musical element plays in the creation of a larger musical unit. It has two defining features:
    • 1. The characteristics of the musical element that tend to belong to that function
    • 2. The kinds of elements that tend to precede/follow that element in a succession of musical elements (its context)
  • Style: The set of patterns (of expectation and function) that define a type of music. When we analyze music, we must “interpret the role that chords, phrases, modules, etc. play in the larger context [a.k.a. style] in which they are found.”
  • Harmonic Function: The role that a particular chord plays in the creation of a larger harmonic progression. The function of a chord relies on the style of music in which the chord appears and certain contexts like key and place in a musical phrase. Mainly defined by:
    • The pitches in the chord
    • The tendencies of those pitches as scale degrees within a key
  • Three-Function Harmonic Model: Functional model of syntax in common-practice tonal (CPT) music. Chords are categorized into three main functions according to their scale-degree content within a major or minor key:
    • Tonic (function): Most stable function of CPT syntax (usually contains chords I, iii, VI).
    • Dominant (function): Most unstable function of CPT syntax (usually contains chords V and viiĀ°)
    • Predominant or Subdominant (function): Function that often precedes the dominant function in CPT syntax (usually contains chords IV and ii).