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Functional harmony/non-functional harmony

What’s functional harmony, you ask? Essentially, it describes rules determining how chords are related in a progression. In other words, chords tend to go to some chords, but not others. Over time, this creates predictable chord patterns.

Function, then, describes where the chords in any key tend to go.

For instance, an F major (IV) chord in the key of C has the function of preparing the listener for the G major (V) chord in the same key. The G major chord has the function of resolving tension by going to the C major (I) chord. The IV – V – I progression is one of the most common progressions in music history.


The rules

Here’s a chart outlining all of the tendencies/functions in the key of C.


iii  goes to   vi   goes to  [ ii     or       IV]  goes to   [V       or       vii]    goes to   I

E minor –  A minor    –    [D minor or F major]     –      [G major or B diminished]   –    C major


Other possibilities not on the chart:


  • The I chord can go anywhere.
  • The V chord can go to the vi chord.
  • And iii can go to IV.



So this is a formula for writing music. See what happens if you just plug in chords using this formula. Write some progressions down without playing them. Then play them and see what you think.

You may find that some of the songs you’ve written in the past don’t follow these rules completely or at all. If that’s the case, then you’re dealing, in whole or in part, with non-functional harmony. This doesn’t imply some sort of deficiency. It’s simply another way of hearing things.

In the next number of posts, I’ll be talking about the characteristics of both functional and non-functional harmony. I’ll look at what makes chord progressions predictable, and how to use that knowledge to go beyond standard ideas.



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  • Roger Beickel on

    Thank you. You broke that down into a very useful explanation. Simple and easy to build upon. Too often the subject of functional harmony is made too complicated. All you really need is some basic ideas to get you moving in the right direction.

    • dwall on

      Yeah, it can be made complicated, but when you boil it down to the essentials, it gets pretty clear. I’m glad it was helpful.

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