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Harmonic Functions / Figuring out chord progressions

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by funkymonk13, Nov 30, 2017.

  1. funkymonk13


    Aug 22, 2014
    Hey everyone. I'm struggling a bit with harmonic functions and harmony in general.

    I can figure out easy chord progressions by ear through basic trial and error (with guitar/bass in hand) but thats about it. :bawl: Inversions often throw me off completely; sometimes i'll think its a completely different chord. Cant imagine right now being able to figure out progressions with jazz/altered chords in different inversions, and changing keys on top of that!
    ...Or being able to do this all in my head while listening to music, which is my end goal.

    Its been explained to me that learning the "function" of the chord is supposed to help. But i always get really vague examples of listening to the tonic as "stable" the dominant as "wanting to resolve" and the subdominants as somewhere in between :bored:. I've tried listening for this but its not making sense yet.

    Anyway, i've been including harmonic progressions as part of my daily ear training, and it is helping a lot. I use Teoria.com or Musictheory.net and do intervals, chord quality, and harmonic progressions. But is there anything else i'm missing that's helped you guys make any breakthroughs?

    Books, videos, articles, explanations, resources, experiences, thoughts, tips all welcome:bassist:
  2. Playing rhythm guitar in an ole time Country band. Yes we played from fake chord and everyone had a music stand on stage. After years of playing the same ole Country songs you get to where you understand the basic I-IV-V7 chord progression and one day the music stand can be left at home.

    Inversions never came into the Country we played, so it was simplier.

    Song may start with the I and end with the I. It will end with the I for sure. The Chorus may start with the V and may end with the V as the V wants to go to the tonic I and the I is opening the next verse after the chorus. The I is used the most, the IV is next in line and the V7 usually comes near the end of the second or forth line in a verse. Ole time Country will not have many minor chords, perhaps a ii or vi. I can normally hear the vi but may miss the ii. No big deal catch it in the next verse.

    Start with sheet music and be happy with that for several years. You'll know when to leave the music stand at home. We do not figure out the chord progression, we feel the chord change coming and identify which chord when we hear the change. IMO Takes awhile to develop. For a long while I watched the other rhythm guitarist hands and when he changed chord I did likewise. Long story, short. With out sheet music, it's a feel and hear thing. Theory gives you an idea of what may happen, but your ear tells you what to do..

    Have fun.
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2017
  3. Now for some nuts and bolts..... of what chords like to do:
    • The tonic I can go anywhere it wants to as it is the tonal center of the progression, however, if you return to the tonic you resolve any tension you have built up. Tension is a good thing. Do you really want to kill the tension you have built and start over?
    • The ii chord is a sub-dominant chord and wants to go to a dominant chord, i.e. ii-V-I.
    • The iii chord is the middle chord and normally leads somewhere. It likes to drag the vi with it on the journey, i.e. iii-vi-ii-V-I.
    • The IV is also a sub-dominant chord and wants to go to a dominant chord. As both the ii and IV want the same thing they can sub for each other. IV-V-I
    • The V is the dominant chord in the progression. It wants to go to the tonic I chord. When you make it a V7 chord it wants to go to the I tonic chord RIGHT NOW. V-I
    • The vi chord wants to go to a sub dominant chord, i.e. vi-ii-V-I.
    • The vii chord is the diminished chord in a major progression, it is also a dominant chord so the V and the vii can sub for each other. As the vii wants to lead somewhere. Use it to take the progression somewhere, i.e. vii-iii-vi-ii-V-I is a classic turn-a-round progression. However if you want to resolve by going to the tonic chord right now use the V or V7.

    This helps when writing progressions, however, when jamming it falls back on feel and your ear. But gives you an idea what may be coming and which chords like to go to what other chords. I say like, any chord if in key is going to sound OK with every other chord in the same key and you do not have to take them where they like, it's your progression..... I-vi-V-I.

    Why are the chords where they are? Why did the song writer put them at specific places in the song? The treble clef melody and the bass clef harmony have to share some of the same notes for harmony to happen -- so chords are placed in the song so they will share some of the melody notes and provide harmony. It is a balancing act between movement and harmony. We seem to get movement, and harmony falls between the chairs. Do a Google on harmony.

    The keyboard's left hand plays chords that have some of the notes his right hand is playing. Left hand chords, right hand melody.

    Hope that put some light in the tunnel. Happy trails.
    Last edited: Dec 22, 2017
    funkymonk13 likes this.
  4. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    Memorizing the sound of common chord progressions is what helped me the most.
    The fist bass line I ever learned was "Every Breath You take" - a I vi IV V.
    A bit later I heard "Stand By Me" and realized the same thing was happening.

    For Jazz , the two pillars of harmonic progression are the 12 bar blues variations and the rhythm changes variations
    Most jazz tunes dip into some chunk of these two key song forms. So learning these sounds can be tremendously informative.

    another way to see it:
    The function of a chord is usually explained via its position in the harmonized major scale ( I ii iii IV V vi vii) or its minor relative.
    But in a microscopic way, in any two chord sequence there are two functional possibilities:
    • some form of Dominant to a tonic (temporarily)
    • some form of Tonic to some other chord (temporarily)
    In this sense the Dominant to Tonic need not be strictly a V7 to a I maj 7
    The first possibility above can be any chord with a b7 moving to the chord a fourth above/fifth below.
    In other words any 2 chords are either resolving around the cycle of fourths/fifths (in some way) or they are not.
    so memorizing the sounds of various V-I type cadences can be helpful: V7-I , V7-i , v-I7, v-i, bV7-I etc.

    again , in jazzy microsopic terms "stable" chords are any that do not have a flattend 7th, and chords ""wanting to resolve" always have a b7,
    so learning the hear presence or absence of a flat 7 in a chord can shed light on which of the two options above you are dealing with.
  5. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    A great way to improve this skill is by playing casual jam sessions. By playing unfamiliar songs, you will improve your ear training and increase your musical vocabulary. Eventually you will develop a "sixth sense" for where the song is going.
    ryco, joebar and funkymonk13 like this.
  6. ryco


    Apr 24, 2005
    Have found the Aebersold Play Along books extremely helpful. jazzbooks.com: Category They have piano and drums on one channel, and bass and drume on the other; so one can turn down the bass channel and jam with just piano and drums. Books to guide you, offer ideas, and tell you what you are listening to. Aebersold offers book/CDs with standard songs - but I don't buy these. He has a few method and beginner teaching volumes I DO recommend ------> Vol I is "How to Play Jazz" which should really be called how to play music/songs - teaches a lot about inversions, and the piano is constatly changing inversions so one can learn to hear the root through shifting chord tones. Vol 3 & 16 are all about progressions, subs, and cycles. Vol 84 is about V7 chords and alterations. All of these help you to hear through inversions and altered notes. Vol 24 is "Major & Minor" = pretty self explanatory = lets one jam around on static keys. Vol 2, 42, and 57 are blues books which let you play what you've learned through all different kinds of blues progressions. These books are around $15/20 a pop -- pretty freakin' cheap this day and age -- and you'll have 'em as reference resources forever. Have really been helpful for me in woodshedding and HEARING the stuff you're talking about as far as learning progressions.
    jazzbooks.com: Category

    I also stream a classic jazz station called Slacker in the moring. They play all styles old & new, latin, bop, big band, vocal and I just play 'em cold and listen for the progression and learn as best/fast as I can that way. "...Or being able to do this all in my head while listening to music, which is my end goal." which is exactly my end goal too. Listening - finding the root - then the chord quality (Maj, minor, Dom7, dim, etc) - and then the progression. Hard, but focusing and listening hard works. Good luck and much fun to us both!
    Classic Jazz
    funkymonk13 and Mushroo like this.
  7. Fergie Fulton

    Fergie Fulton

    Nov 22, 2008
    Retrovibe Artist rota
    Do you have an iPad?
    funkymonk13 likes this.
  8. LeeNunn

    LeeNunn Supporting Member

    Oct 9, 2012
    Charlottesville, VA
    I agree with all of the above. I also recommend writing out chord charts by ear for songs for which you have reliable chord charts (or even complete transcriptions). Then compare the results. Do it every day and you’ll be surprised at the progress you make.
    funkymonk13 likes this.
  9. The best thing to do, long term, is learn the particular sound of the different inversions. Until that time, it can be figured out manually.

    Step 1 is figure out the bass part, note for note.
    Step 2 is figure out the differences between inversions and root chords. Say you’re in the key of C. The bass line moves from C to E. the E could be an E minor, C/E, or Am/E. so isolate the differences: the difference between Em and C is the B and C.
    Step 3 is sing a B during that change; next sing a C. Figure out which is in the chord.
    funkymonk13 likes this.
  10. MonetBass

    MonetBass ♪ Just listen ♫ Supporting Member

    Sep 15, 2006
    Tulsa, OK
    Do you play piano / keyboards? Seeing and playing chords in a linear fashion really helps, IMO. And as you see certain notes moving to others in the next chord, their function becomes apparent.

    Also: www.musictheory.net
    funkymonk13 likes this.
  11. funkymonk13


    Aug 22, 2014
    Hey guys, Thank you all for the advice!
    To give you guys an update, and for those in a similar position....Since i posted this I've been doing harmonic progressions on teoria.com every day. It was a little rough at first but i've improved tremendously in such a short amount of time.

    Kinda to reiterate what some of you where saying, i had a little break-through by just realizing that you gotta hear the whole progression and then put it in context. Its more about figuring out what the chords sound like in relation to each other, and then filling in the blanks. Memorizing what two chords sound like next to each other, or little common progressions makes everything easier....If you know V-I, IV-I, IV-V-I, ii-V-I you can pretty much fill in the blanks.
    Then i guess improving relative pitch also helps when figuring out some of the minors. Like a I-ii is kind of obvious. or a I-V-vi is easy because after the fifth you can tell its just the next chord up.

    So yea, having a lot of fun with this. Trying to practice all of this w/o my instrument in hand to really internalize it. Then applying it/looking for the sounds when learning tunes.

    Gonna give this another week or two and then i'll start figuring out inversions. After that 7th chords and beyond!

    Thanks again for all your replies!

    @ryco those seem like great resources; i'll check em out.
    @Fergie Fulton , no ipad why? certain app you like?
    @LeeNunn , for sure. The trick here is finding stuff thats the right difficulty. Acoustic pop songs i usually dont have a hard time with a guitar in hand. The tricky thing is like i said, inversions that will throw me off. Gonna just try to start doing it w/o an instrument in hand maybe(other than figuring out the tonic); i think that will help with hearing everything in my head.

    So im leaving out inversions for now; walk before you run and all that lol. But yea that makes a lot of sense. In general with most things musical the best strategy just seems to listen to a specific sound enough times that you kinda just memorize it and know what it sounds like.
    Figuring out the bass notes and taking it from there seems like a good strategy too; id imagine the more you do it, the faster you'll be able to do it and hear everything in context.
    No, do play guitar tho. But yea, what you're saying helped me a lot; even doing melodic dictation kinda helps you with figuring out the flow of things as they go up and down.
  12. Fergie Fulton

    Fergie Fulton

    Nov 22, 2008
    Retrovibe Artist rota
    No probs,, Garageband is the Apple music program and it has some great features that can be used to learn music theory on.
    Many people have it but think of it as a song building programme using loops, or as a recording studio to write ideas on or record with.

    But as I said it has all the tools needed to learn Harmony and Melody as well as explore there possibilities in music.
    funkymonk13 likes this.
  13. Definitely let the melody be your guide. When you practice focus on making the melody sound good and you can't go wrong.
    funkymonk13 likes this.
  14. I do not think we have touched on what to play under those chord progressions. Natobasso brings up a good suggestion, focus on making the melody sound good. Question is how? Well the song writer placed the chords in the song at specific spots so they would harmonize with the melody, i.e. sound good with the melody. If we play notes of the harmonizing chord we two will sound good with the melody.

    Yes this brings up what notes of the chord can be played in our bass lines. The notes of a chord are every other note in that chord's tonic scale. Or The R-3-5-7 would be good candidates. Not going to speak about minor chords right now, moving on... That leaves the 2, 4, 6 and octave 8. The 6 is natural and fits with most major chords. The 2 and 4 are not found in that many chords, perhaps in the sus and add chords, and I seldom run up on those in the music I play..... So use the 2 & 4 as passing notes and help yourself to the 6 if in a major chord and the 8 is just a root in the next octave - very safe.

    Where are those notes? They await you in the major scale box. Help yourself.

    Major scale box showing scale degree numbers
    and the root note on the 4th string.
    G~~|---2---|-------|---3---|---4---| 1st string
    E~~|-------|---R---|-------|---2---|4th string
    Cmaj7 chord coming up in the song. Find a C note,
    how about 4th string 8th fret. Put the box's R over
    that note and play the spelling for the Cmaj7 chord.
    Notice the 3 is up a string and back a fret, the 5 is up
    a string and over two frets, the 8 is right over the 5
    on the next string up. Where is the 6 & 7? Yes get
    "where they are" into memory.​

    This will help with the other spellings; http://www.smithfowler.org/music/Chord_Formulas.htm?i=1

    Start with just roots to the beat. Need more add the 5. Root on the 1st beat and the 5 on the 3rd beat. Need more add an octave 8. R-5-8-5. Want to explore other bass line notes? Help yourself to the R, 3, 5, 7, & 8. Throw in the 6 if you like. Keep the 2 & 4 as passing notes, do not stop or start with them.

    The rest is art, i.e. create your own bass lines. Roots, fives and octaves do most of what I need. If you need more help yourself.
    Last edited: Dec 12, 2017
    natobasso and funkymonk13 like this.
  15. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    Don't get boxed in by the box - other methods are available...
    Nashrakh and funkymonk13 like this.
  16. funkymonk13


    Aug 22, 2014
    gotcha. I have ableton; i wanna start producing and i def think writing music/composing will help.

    good point. My long term goal is def to be able to hear a melody and hear the harmony in my head, even if its not being played. Particularly wanna get to the point where i can figure out harmony to stuff like walking basslines and solos; blows my mind how those jazz cats can hear all those changes.

    good point. I often find myself wondering what bassline to play around a chord progression. Simple is best when playing along with someone.
    My main reason for trying to get a good grasp of harmony right now is im getting more into jazz and experimental music and a lot of the stuff im playing around with are really weird modes/made up scales, so usually technically "outside" the key in some way....or at least changing keys or modal stuff. Its dont really fully comprehend it so when i go over it and try to add chords im not sure what im doing.

    lol, well any input is appreciated, so care to share? :dead:
  17. Modal stuff is usually a two chord vamp. The tonic and the chord that contains the signature note of the mode. Just two chords vamping, so the modal mood can develop and be heard. There is no resolution with a modal progression, i.e. no V-I, just the vamp.

    That other experimental stuff I'll have to pass on.

    Good luck.
    Last edited: Dec 15, 2017
    funkymonk13 likes this.
  18. They hear the changes but also they anticipate the ones that are coming and lead into them. A lot of this is patterns you repeat, but also improvisation. This goes back to learning the rules (scales) and then breaking them (melody). You'll hear the term "blue note", this is when a melody uses a note that might be considered "outside" to provide extra tension and interest in a melody phrase. Jazz is a great place for blue notes, as are Blues and R&B.
    Spin Doctor likes this.
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