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The best way to start a new skill you’ve learned is to put it into practice. Start writing some new chord progressions and feel free to share with me what you’ve done!

Functional Vs. Non-Functional

There was a moment in time in music history where functional harmony started to take a turn from Western Art Music Theory’s explanation (roman numeral analysis, cyclical progressions, etc) into harmony that became harder to define. Functional harmony hangs around key or tonal areas that move in either:

  1. Cyclical motion (the circle of 4ths/5ths)
  2. Descending 3rds (I, vi, IV) or
  3. Stepwise motion

These motions can belong to the key (diatonic), be closely related to the key (non-diatonic) or borrowed from parallel modes (modal interchange). There is a list of some of the most common functional harmony motions in the Functional Harmony Options PDF (that was just sent to your email).

Non-functional lacks a noticeable key area or has a progression that moves in a non-functional way. Some of these movements can include:

  1. Root motion that is non-cyclical
  2. Bass (or any other type) of pedal chord. This typically occurs when the root remains constant while the harmony above changes
  3. Planning. These progressions will keep the same quality of chord (i.e. Maj7) while moving the root.
  4. Ambiguous chords: slash chords and other exoticness not found in the key
  5. Multi-tonic systems: Coltrane changes are a great example. The progression moves in multiple tonics that have a macro movement along either an Augmented Triad or a diminished chord.
  6. Tone Rows and other 20th century Western Art Music compositional techniques. Examples would include Arnold Schoenberg and his contemporaries.

Great compositions will have a balance of both functional and non-functional harmony. As a composer, you will need to not lean heavily one direction or the other. I have noticed that those that come from more of a popular music background and influence will lean more towards functional harmony. The problem: it’s too predictable and sounds like everyone else. Those with a Jazz background tend to lean more towards non-functional harmony. The problem: it’s too unpredictable for the listener. That causes them to disengage. The solution? Balance both functional and non-functional in a way that there’s enough unexpected (tension/non-functional harmony) with the expected (resolution/functional harmony).

Stop and read through the Functional Harmony Options PDF!

Combining Functional Options

Clearly, the list of functional harmony options isn’t a complete guide to every possible combination. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of potential groupings one could make. However, I want to focus on two different ways you can combine the options to expand your harmonic progression. This is very similar to building structures with legos. They can fit in a variety of these two ways:

  1. Combine them in the same key. Take one of the harmonic options and combine it with another in the same key. This can be done in the same large form section (‘A’ section) or throughout the whole composition depending on what you are looking for.
  2. Combine them in a different key. You can take one option in one key and either the same option in another key or a different option in another key. The video below looks at a familiar standard that shows how one composer combined them. 

The video below shows a very simple way you can combine them (using a recognizable standard). This does use the ii – V7 – I as an example, but you can use ANY progression in a similar manner to get amazing results!

Bonus Content

10 Most Common Chord Progressions in Pop Music

You may be wondering, I thought this was a Jazz composition lesson?

You are correct, but these common progressions found in pop and rock music can add some familiar or expected with some non-functional (or unexpected). They can be added in to a formal division (like an ‘A’ or ‘B’ section) or be an entire section itself. Great composers find ways to add elements of current popular music into their music without making it cliche. Most of the Jazz standard repertoire was, at the time, popular music. If it worked for them – it can work for us!