Harmonic Function is a title that represents the feeling (emotion) that certain chord transmits to the listener. This concept will be clearer when we give you examples. First of all, you have to know that the three main harmonic functions are:
Transmits a feeling of rest, stability and finalization. Promotes the idea of conclusion.
Transmits instability and tension feeling. Promotes the idea of preparation for the tonic.
It is the middle ground between the two previous functions. We can say that it creates a preparation feeling, but with less intensity and may migrate either to the dominant function (intensifying the tension) as to the tonic (resting).
To understand better what we are talking about, try to play repeatedly the following chords in the order that they are shown:
| G7M | C7M | D7 |
Playing slowly this sequence, you can see that the D7 chord transmits a “preparation” feeling to return to G7M. This sound of instability is characterized by the dominant function. When you return to G7M chord there is a “relief”, “solving” and stability feeling. This is a characteristic of tonic function. And the C7M chord, in this context, represented a middle ground (without all that “anguish” from D7 chord, but also without that stability from G7M chord). This characterizes a pre-dominant function.
The context that we used here was the harmonic field of G major, where G7M is the first degree, C7M is the fourth degree and D7 is the fifth degree. We can generalize this experiment saying that, in any major harmonic field: the first degree characterizes the tonic function, the fourth degree characterizes the pre-dominant function and the fifth the dominant function. As it was said above that each chord has a harmonic function in music, we will summarize below the functions of each degree in the major harmonic field:
Very well, so the idea that we showed about “conclusion” and “preparation” can not only exist with the degrees I, IV and V, but also with the other degrees, as shown in this table. This is really important! Let’s start to use this harmonic functions concept from now on to the next topics and levels! Therefore, it is fundamental that you memorize well the function of each degree in major harmonic field, identifying quickly which one is dominant, pre-dominant or tonic.
The chords have the same harmonic functions and can be interchanged among each other. This means that we can take the chords for a song and substitute them for others that have the same harmonic function without modifying the feeling of that song! You can see this below, for example, the harmonic field functions in C major:
You can play with a song that is in C major tone exchanging the place of the chords that are in the same row of this table. For example, in the place of the F chord that will appear in the song, you can use Dm. The same happens for the other functions.
For testing this concepts, choose songs that you already know and analyzed them from the harmonic functions point of view. You should identify each chord in the song with its respective degree and function, as we listed here. Also try to identify the feeling of that song in this moment. This will be your “homework”. You can also try to substitute the chords of the same harmonic function among them, but for now don’t worry too much about that. We will work a lot about this harmonic functions subject; this topic is just an introduction.
However, you will like to know that harmonic function is the biggest secret of musicians that have a good ear. Knowing well the feeling of each one of these three functions has (tonic, dominant and subdominant), it is easier to identify some chord by ear. The dominant function, for example, (in opinion of many people) is the easiest way to identify.
How can you identify a chord by harmonic funcions?
Let’s say that you are playing with a band a song that you don’t know, and somebody tells you that the tonality is C major. You are in the back part of the stage and you cannot see the chords that the vocalist is doing in his instrument. Summarizing, you are playing by ear this time. Suddenly you feel that some chord has dominant function (this is easy to recognize with experience and ear training). As you already know that the function is dominant and the tonality is C major, it means that this chord can be the V7 degree or VIIm7(b5). It is more common appears the V7 instead of VIIm7(b5), therefore you would try to play G7 and would have 90% of chances of being right. Even if you made a mistake, you would do that in the same harmonic function, what is tolerable; because the sensation passed through theses chords is the same (the sound wouldn’t be dissonant).
Without knowing the feeling of harmonic functions, this task would be harder, because you should know the sound of each chord individually and if you made a mistake, you would be at risk of playing some chord with another harmonic function, what would be a disaster.
Emotions in harmonic funcions
Besides this application, harmonic functions also serve “to manipulate” people’s emotions. Who does not become distressed with that song typically of thriller movies? So well, they are nothing more than the abuse of these dominant chords, which are “hammering” without solving the tonic.
On the other hand, advertisements in television emphasize light and pleasant feelings (tonic function) so that the customer feels comfortable and connects this well being with this product.
Many musicians try to manipulate the harmonic functions according to the lyrics in a song. If the lyrics talks about something bad and worrying, the feeling of the chord is dominant. When the lyrics theme is solved and the song becomes “happier”, the harmony follows this evolution with the tonic function. This way, the message is experienced by the listener twice, because the sense of the lyric and the feeling of the song add up together. Good song writers, arrangers and producers use to be experts in this subject.
Any study about harmony, improvisation or composition will address intrinsically harmonic functions topic, this is why it is important to dominate from now on this subject.
In the improvisation field, it is easy to comprehend that the song is transmitting tension; the solo needs to highlight this tension. If the song is transmitting tranquility, the solo has to highlight this tranquility. A soloist that follows well what the song demands creates really pleasant melodies to our ears, because there is a perfect marriage between melody and harmony. We can compare this to a soccer match, where the right-back (harmony) cross the ball forward to the area and the striker (melody) comes running and head the ball into the net. If the right-back retained the ball, should the striker run to the area and head the wind? In the same way, if the right-back had crossed the ball forward, the striker couldn’t return to the midfield!
Besides obvious, this kind of mistake is really common in improvisation. But take it easy, we will work here so that you play really mingled in this team!
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