Soā¦ What is Harmonic Function?

The notes that compile a scale arenāt just thrown there, each note has its own part of the chain and will act differently, depending on its place.

In any given scale, some notes will be āstableā and others āunstableā and these notes will be compiled into chords that will also sound āstableā or āunstableā.

The āunstableā chords will always aspire to be resolved into a āstableā chord. This distance between āstableā and āunstableā can be stretched in all sorts of ways and is the key to understanding the works of harmony.

Now letās analyze what we see:

All the notes of C major scale resolve into either C, E, or G which are the notes that compile the C major chord.

This chord, in comparison to the others, is the most stable one and gives the listener a sense of āresolutionā like coming home from a trip. This feeling is the tonality of the scale!

Two notes we also need to pay attention to are the 4th and the 7th. They are the only notes located only a semitone above their neighboring note. This close distance creates a strong movement inside the scale.

The rules of this system go like this:

• A chord that contains the 3rd degree of the scale (E in this case) and does not contain the 4th (F) will be considered as a TonicĀ chord.

• A chord that contains the 4th degree of the scale (F) will be considered as a subdominant

chord.

• A chord that contains the 4th (F) and 7th (B) degrees of the scale will be considered as a dominant chord.

the Tonic Function

These areĀ the degrees that feel the most stable and give us a sense of resolution.

We can get this sound from a triad chord, a seventh chord, with or without tensions, a two-note interval, or even from one note alone.
Remember, it is a sense, a feeling, and not a specific note or voicing!
Ā

Now, letās see what the Tonic chords are.
Remember, these are the chords that contain the 3rd-degree note (E) of the C major scale:

The Tonic Chords

The 1st-degree chord, C major (C) - C-E-G

The 3rd-degree chord, E minor (Em) - E-G-B

The 6th-degree chord, A minor (Am) - A-C-E

Within these 3 chords, there is a hierarchy, levels of stability.

The 1st degree (C major chord) is the most stable because it contains the whole C major chord notes in it, C-E-G.

The 6th degree (A minor chord) is also stable but less stable than C. It is second in the Tonic hierarchy because it still contains the C note, which is a very strong note in C major scale. In its seventh chord shape (Am7) it contains the whole C major chord triad notes, A-C-E-G.

The 3rd degree (E minor chord) is stable but last in the Tonic hierarchy. It does not contain the C note but it does contain the other notes of the C major triad chord, E-G-B.

Note: musicians can refer to a note or a chord as a degree and it can mean different things. for example, when speaking about C note in the C major scale we will call it the 1st degree. When talking about degrees of a specific chord, Dm, for example, we can refer to D as the 1st degree (the 1st degree of the chord.

The Dominant Function

The Dominant degrees are the most unstable, we will feel the highest tensionĀ ā”ļø and desire for resolution from these degrees.Ā

Now, letās see what the Dominant chords are. Remember, these are the chords that contain the 4th and 7th-degree notes (F and B) of the C major scale:

The Dominant Chords

The 5th-degree chord, G major (G) - G-B-D-(F)

The seventh chord format of G in the C major scale is G7.

The 7th-degree chord, B diminished (Bo) - B-D-F-(A)

The seventh chord format of this chord is BĆø (can be written like this as well - Bm7b5).

These two chords are also different in their levels of tensity.

The G7 chord not only contains the 4th and 7th notes, but it also contains the G note as well which desires to be resolved into C (as mentioned in the table above), therefore it carries the most tension out of these two Dominant chords.

The BĆø chord contains the 4th and 7th degrees but there isnāt a G in it, therefore it is a Dominant chord but carries less tension than the G7.

the Subdominant Function

The Subdominant degrees carry mid-level tensionĀ  āļø because they contain only the 4th degree of the scale (F). They feel unresolved but not as tense as the dominant chords.Ā
Ā

Now, letās see what the Subdominant chords are. Remember, these are the chords that contain only the 4th-degree note (F) of the C major scale:

The Subdominant Chords

The 2nd-degree chord, D minor (Dm) - D-F-A

The 4th-degree chord, F major (F) - F-A-C

Within these 2 chords, there are also different levels of stability.

The 2nd degree (D minor chord) is tenser than F major because it contains the D note which carries more desire for resolution than A.