How to Build Musical Phrases with 3 Harmonic Functions

How to Build Musical Phrases with 3 Harmonic Functions


A lot of music theory class is spent with
chunks of notated music. You have to find chords, figure out their
qualities, determine their roots, and then write some elaborate symbol below each one. This can seem pointless and unpleasant. But what if we focused on larger harmonic
shapes rather than exacting labels? What would we learn about tonal music then? Let’s find out. This is Music Corner: your source for nerdy
thoughts on music. I’m David Kulma. Here is a beautiful long phrase by Beethoven. It’s about a minute and a half. Although it’s a very long phrase in a slow
tempo, in it Beethoven still follows the patterns we expect. Music theorists have studied many phrases
like this one from the classical period and other tonal eras, and they developed a theory
of harmonic function to explain these patterns. And unlike the seemingly endless Roman numerals
you find in theory textbooks, it boils down to three zones, that is, functions. Yes, really. Just three zones. There are lots of ways composers elaborate
them, but we can relate these expansions back to the three zones. The first zone is called Tonic. It’s where we start and end tonal music. It gives us a feeling of rest, release, and
relaxation. The most common Tonic zone chord is I. The second zone is called Dominant. This is the moment in a phrase with the most
harmonic tension. It gives us a feeling of urgency and forward
motion to fulfill our need to resolve to Tonic. The most common Dominant zone chord is V. The third zone is called Subdominant, Predominant,
or Dominant Preparation. This zone is a way station that leads to Dominant. In chromatic versions, it is quite dramatic. The most common Subdominant chords are IV
and ii. Notice how important the order is. Part of each zone’s function is how it relates
to the other two zones. So theorists created an abstract phrase of
music to show these relationships: Tonic – Subdominant – Dominant – Tonic. Each zone can be a single chord or many chords. The opening tonic zone is often much longer
than the others. Now, let’s see how Beethoven’s phrase
aligns with the abstract phrase. Since the line of lowest notes (the bass)
plays an important role in how tonal music is shaped, we’ll use these notes as a guide
to finding the zones. Notice that each T is some kind of I chord,
each D is some kind of V, and S includes both IV and ii. Function theory assumes that any extra zone
labels are expansions of the abstract phrase, so we need to find each of the four main zones
and show how the other chords elaborate them. We’ll start with the end. Measures eight through twelve contain six
perfect authentic cadences in a row. The first cadence fulfills the Dominant zone
and begins the final tonic zone. The dominant zone includes both the cadential
six-four chord and the root position V7 chord. The tonic zone begins with the following I
chord and includes all the repeated cadences that drive E flat major into your brain. Back at the beginning, a dominant zone chord
elaborates the opening tonic zone. Unlike the later dominant zone, this chord
is inverted with scale degree 7 in the bass. This chord is like a neighbor tone, where
the middle note elaborates the surrounding notes. Here the bass line follows the same pattern,
but each note has its own harmony. The inverted I chord extends the tonic zone
even further. Beethoven avoids the shorter ascent to scale
degree 3 and instead descends through scale degrees 5 and 4. The full tonic zone is six measures long and
lasts half the phrase. Finally, measure seven has three different
harmonies, but they all represent the Subdominant zone. Each chord has scale degree 4 in the bass,
and also shares scale degree 6. The ascending chromatic line from scale degree
1 to 2 accounts for the differences. To me this is where function theory is most
helpful. We can see how a major triad, an augmented
triad, and a minor triad all share the same purpose: to set up the dominant zone. Now I’ll play Beethoven’s phrase one more
time. Make sure you listen for the harmonic zones
as they arrive. Now, go build your own tonal musical phrases. Thanks for watching Music Corner. If you liked this video, please give it a
thumbs up, share it with your friends, and subscribe. Please also support me on Patreon to help
me make more Music Corner videos. If you have any questions, please leave them
in the comments. Until next time, “well, retirement has its
dangers.”

11 Replies to “How to Build Musical Phrases with 3 Harmonic Functions”

  1. please explain chord function of Double Harmonic Major scale.
    It contains 1 b2 3 4 5 b6 7
    Is the bII a subdominant chord or a dominant?
    and what about the bVI ?

  2. Explaining Music theory is a hard job. You are doing it very well. I come from Jazz/Blues & can hear where it's going. Problem = Ears are ahead of the brain. Some guys won't play unless the know everything. In my scene you're thrown in the deep end & sink or swim. I record it & analyze it later. Your approach is a big help. Thanks.

  3. The analysis is good but your pacing is far too quick. Are you in a hurry? Why?
    Slow down please, relax and so, we the audience can relax with you and take in the wonderful ideas that you propose. If at the end of the sentences there were full stops, a breathing pause, your videos would be so much easier to follow..

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