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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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Playing the bass line

It’s an effective move for the guitar player to become the bass player. Even if you never actually play a bass line, it’s a good idea to learn how to construct one.

I love it. It helps me get into the mind of a bass player. It helps me figure what they care about. And what they care about (probably more than anyone) is groove.

Let’s take a basic progression and see what we can do with it. We need the notes before we can sink into groove.


bass line


What you have here is a G major arpeggio, followed by and E minor arpeggio, a C major arpeggio, and an A minor arpeggio.  Let’s talk a bit about arpeggios.



Arpeggios are simply the notes in a chord played one at a time instead of together. These are the main notes that any bass player in any style will play. But outside of walking bass, no bass player will play them in the way I’ve outlined above. There needs to be some rhythmic interest.

Before we get to rhythm, though, let’s see how arpeggios are built. It’s not all that complicated.

Let’s start with the key of C.


C            D            E            F            G            A            B


How to make an arpeggio

Arpeggios are made by taking every second note of the scale. If you want a C major arpeggio, take the C, the E, and the G. If you want a D minor arpeggio, take the D, the F, and the A.

How do I know that building an arpeggio from the D is a minor arpeggio?

Here’s how it works in any major key (I’ll use C major as examples here):

  • the arpeggio built on the first note is always major: CEG
  • the second and third notes give us minor arpeggios: DFA and EGB
  • the fourth and fifth notes are major arpeggios: FAC and GBD
  • the sixth arpeggio is minor: ACE
  • and the seventh is diminished: BDF


To be totally clear:

C            D            E            F            G            A            B

maj            min            min            maj            maj            min            dim


Now you know how to find the main notes for making a bass line. Take a song that you like to play, and find the arpeggio notes on the E, A, and D strings.


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Graphic scores

Graphic scores provide a way communicating musical ideas. Composers have used them for decades when they don’t get what they want from traditional means. Some of them can be appreciated simply for how they look.

Here are a couple of examples…

graphic score 2

graphic score 1


… and a website dedicated to graphic scores.


 Writing it down

How can this kind of thing be used in songwriting? Good question.

If you put your music on paper, it can be a great way of communicating chaos, noise, a departure from normalcy, etc. You can write a normal chord progression, follow it with some kind of abstract image, and then go back to the chord progression. And yes, you can just explain this kind of thing to your band, but it helps to work out ideas in this way before you start talking about it.


Generating new ideas

If you’re blocked, no ideas (or worse nothing but old ideas), it can help to draw pictures. Get away from the way that you’re used to working. Try paint, clay, whatever.

Can you make a picture of the song you want to write? What do the verses look like? The choruses? The bridge?

Get six pieces of paper, and make some pictures. As a way of keeping your thought process open, make them abstract. No people, animals, houses, etc.

Now group them into verses, choruses, and a bridge. Three of the pieces of paper are verses, two are choruses, and one is a bridge. The different colours simply communicate that each verse and each chorus is different from the others in some way (I’m using colors for the sake of expediency. I use pictures to go deeper).

Graphic song



Now move the pieces of paper into a song form. Here’s a standard, alternating section example:

Graphic song2

You can move the papers in any order you want. What would it mean if the bridge was the first section? How about one chorus and six verses. Maybe four choruses and 2 verses. Two bridges?

Or you can get rid of the labels and just let the images flow into each other. This may feel like a stretch. But it’s not necessary to use what you produce in this process. It’s an exercise to stretch your brain. And who knows? You might find some sounds you really like…

Relating the medium that you’re used to with a medium that you’re not is a really healthy practice. It’s a way of subverting your normal way of thinking. It gets you out of ruts.

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100 posts

This is my 100th post. Which seems a bit incredible. My other 4 blogs produced maybe 20 posts altogether…

Up until now, this blog has been about helping guitar players work with concepts that might make their songwriting/composition process and product more interesting. That won’t change.

But after 100 posts you start to want to stretch a bit. It will always about making stuff, but I’ll start introducing topics that I notice I’ve been shying away from: more advanced compositional ideas, some tech stuff, jazz harmony, artist reviews from time to time. Other stuff…

Stay tuned.


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Eastern European scales and making chords

You can’t have chords without scales. Even if you just throw some randomly chosen notes together, those notes would be part of a scale.

You can’t really escape scales. People try. “Too technical,” and “Aren’t they just for soloing?” are a couple of things I hear when the topic arises.

“Too technical” translates to “I don’t want to practice.” And the answer to “Aren’t they just for soloing?” is “no.” They’re also for inventing chords.

I admit, it’s easier to look at a page full of chord diagrams, and make your fingers conform to what’s there. Developing a creative, curious mind takes a bit more effort.

It’s kind of worth it to do the work. It stretches your mind, and it stretches your ear.


Eastern Europe

This scale might sound strange. Or beautiful. Both are great. Once you get used to it, it becomes something that adds color, rather than a random, weird sound.

Let’s start by building a random, weird sound…

Here’s a scale from Eastern Europe


East euro 1


Making chords: Unfamiliar to familiar

Place your middle finger on the C on the A string, 3rd fret, and your index finger on the F# on the high E string, 2nd fret. Add the open B string. Or you can use the B at the 4th fret of the G string (that’ll make the next move a bit more challenging, though…)

Might sound a bit different than what you’re used to. Might not. In any case, let’s reduce the tension. Move the F# to the G on the 3rd fret of the E string (leave the C and the B where they are), and play the new chord.

Might still sound a bit strange. Try moving the C to the open string D (or the D on the A string, fret 5). Better?

The point here is to use the scale to randomly choose notes with which to build chords you would never have otherwise found. And then to resolve those chords by moving the notes in the chord to new notes.

This is a process of discovery and experimentation, of trial and error. The point is to take the stuff you’re used to (and maybe getting bored of?) and add interest.


Familiar to unfamiliar

Another way to approach this is to go from familiar to unfamiliar. Place your index finger on the G, 3rd fret, high E string; middle finger on Eb, 4th fret, B string; ring finger on C, 5th fret, G string. That’s a C minor chord.

Now just move the fingers to other notes in the scale and back. The G can go back to the F#; the Eb can go to the D; the C can go to the B. These can move together or one at a time. Work with this, and you’ll find ways to introduce this kind of sound into your regular playing and writing.

Check my posts on scale-tone chords for more shapes like this.



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Speed and relaxation

Musicians want to play what they hear in their heads. They also want to play what they hear on recordings. Often that means playing something faster than their body is comfortable with. This leads to muscular tension and mistakes.

But there are things you can do to make your playing feel relaxed. As you might expect, it takes some practice.


The brain

Your motor cortex doesn’t think in terms of slow and fast or good and bad. It just records movements needed to complete an action. If you do something too fast and make mistakes, it thinks that that’s correct. Then it keeps doing that until you tell it to do it a better way.


Making it better

Bring intention to your practice. Be aware of your mental states. If you’re playing something that you find difficult, be aware of thoughts like, “Oh, oh, this part’s hard.” Or “I should be playing this faster.” Or, “I wish I could play it like that guy.” These kinds of thoughts create tension.

Thoughts like, “smooth”, “easy”, “light” communicate a feeling of relaxation. Try placing those kinds of thoughts in your head as you practice.



You can program you brain and body to function fluently using a metronome. Set it to a comfortable speed. Too slow or too fast won’t work. Most musicians tend to think of slow as easy, and sometimes it is. But sometimes it feels unnatural and we struggle to make our muscles conform to the slowness.

Everybody has a speed where things feel loose and natural. Strum a simple chord progression and adjust the metronome until you find that speed. It might take a while but it’s worth the time.


Notching it up

If this optimally comfortable tempo is slower than a song you’re learning, bring the tempo on the metronome up a notch. By notch I mean no more than five. So if the metronome is set at 70, don’t go higher than 75. Accept that you may have to go lower than that. Once you’re comfortable at the new tempo, notch it up again. Continue until you’re playing the speed of the song.

Pay close attention to what your body is telling you. If there’s any tension at all go back a couple of notches. Seriously. If you go too fast and program mistakes into the brain, it will take 6 – 10 repetitions of doing it right to get it to where you want. Going slow and being patient will get you where you want to go faster.

This isn’t easy to do. Most people get impatient and try to go fast too soon. Be patient and honest with yourself, and eventually you’ll be able to play anything you want.

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