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Pitches that determine a chord's harmonic function

Discussion in 'Music Theory [DB]' started by Tom Lane, Feb 4, 2021.

  1. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member

    Is there useful reading out there that identifies the pitches that determine a chord's harmonic function? If so, can you point me in the right direction? The last music theory book I read was around 40 years ago and I don't remember it going into detail about how including a flatted seventh or a raised fifth effected the harmonic function of a chord, but it seems as though it's probably been well covered already, no?

    Playing around with it, I noticed all kinds of interesting things:
    Add a Major 3rd to any Minor chord voicing and viola! It's Dominant. Add a Minor 3rd to a Dominant chord and viola! It's still Dominant!
    Add a raised 5th to a Major 7th chord and now it's Dominant.
    Add any pitch other than a Major 3rd to a Minor chord and it remains Minor.
    Add a flat-9th, Minor 3rd, raised 5th, or Minor 7th to a Major chord and it'll sound Dominant, although a Major chord with both 7ths will sound weakly Dominant, it still resolves to it's tonic.
    I used to think of Diminished chords as having a Dominant function, but now I'm hearing them as a specific case of Minor. Am I tricking myself?
    Augmented chords can function as the tonic, but their sound is Dominant. Especially a
    Major 7#5.
    Dominant chords serving as the tonic, as in the blues, doesn't provide much of a resolution.
  2. Silevesq


    Oct 2, 2010
    Yes, no, maybe...

    Chord harmonic function exists within a tonal center only. Modal music doesn't apply.
    I will have to disagree with what you are saying about chords.

    A minor chord with a major third doesn't become a dominant chord. The problem resides in how you voice and heard the chord. If you stack C Eb G B D F# A E. The "roots" of the chord are minor and the extension doesn't change it's function. But if you stack C E G B D F# A Eb, you have a major 7th chord.

    As for the major 7th becoming dominant, again I want to say it's not right. I can understand that the feeling might be similar, but their function are different again. But again, how did you voice it? The minor third created by the #5 and major 7th may feel a bit similar to the 5th and flat 7h. But again it is not.

    In the end, one very particular thing about music is that you can hear one thing in many different ways. There is theory and there is how you hear something. I would encourage you to try to hear the mentioned chord in a different way, not to prove you wrong but to make you realize that hearing is very relative.

    Some books you may be interested in
    The Lydian chromatic concept of tonal organization, George Russel
    The Jazz Theory Book, Mark Levine
    Modal Jazz Composition and harmony, Ron Miller

    These are the first to come to mind. Hope this help!
  3. I liked this book a lot, because it explains the development of chords/scale relations as an continuous historical evolution, and submits lots of examples. Lets you create your own opinions on why and what it means.
    Seanto likes this.
  4. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member

    Thanks for your thoughts and comments Simon. I've been through the Levine book 4 times now. The first time, my piano chops weren't really good enough to play through the examples and by the 3rd time, that wasn't the case and I got a lot more out of it. I went through it a 4th time to try to better retain Mark's teaching. One of my favorite books! I remember going through the Russell book 35 years ago and not getting much out of it. Now, I see that it's absurdly expensive so maybe I'll borrow a copy from someone sometime.

    I thought your example with both 3rds was interesting and on point, but you draw the opposite conclusion from me, which is even more interesting. For me, whichever way you include them, you'll either get a flat-9th or a Major 7th and in both cases, to my ear, both chords have a lot of tension and are seeking release, so I'd say they cease feeling "Minor" to me, and sound more Dominant, regardless of their function in the progression. And, I'm surprised that you don't hear those chords that way. Maybe we're talking about different aspects, not sure.

    Certainly, harmonic context is important and what the melody is doing also needs to be considered, and which voicing is used, even by which instruments, but I think I'm finding that some chords are seeking resolution and some aren't and there are strong and weak varieties of both.
    Silevesq likes this.
  5. Silevesq


    Oct 2, 2010
    @Tom Lane
    Now it's starting to get interesting, I wasn't sure at first if we were talking theory/hearing. I always take a more theory approach at first and I think in this case it's wrong. I guess what you meant by dominant is the unstableness that the chords have? Am I wrong in thinking that you are using the word dominant just to imply that some note wants to resolve? If so, I agree with you to some extent.

    Also, when you are trying these on the piano, do you have a real piano? If so sympathetic vibration may step in the game and change some of these things. I would love to try what we are talking on a real piano but I can't. This is to me the beautiful thing about music, it's when we start talking about how you are hearing something. Doesn't matter what is the quality of the chord, it's beautiful to hear where it can take you. :)

    Food for tough, Jacob Collier as some very interesting things to say about minor chords, but I can't find the video. If I remember correctly, he switches the 9th and minor third around to get very different feel. The only interesting one I got for now is

    Regarding the Lydian concept, if there is a college or university near you, it is usually very easy to get a card to rent from them.
  6. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member

    That's a good idea, borrowing the Russell book from the libe.

    So, yes, I was focusing on the "sound" of these chords more than their function. I think we can probably agree that in a C Major context, C^9 | D-11 G^9 | C^69, the G chord functions as Dominant even though it doesn't "sound" Dominant - it sounds more like a SubDominant chord, like a IV chord to me. I still recognize a resolution when I hear the 2nd C^ chord, but I didn't strongly anticipate it based on the G Major chord. Now, add the #9 and #5 to that G Major and I'm expecting a resolution. It doesn't have to appear, you can string V7 chords together for a long time and delay the resolution but that can get wearing if each chord is strongly seeking resolution. And again, the Blues is a good example of tonicizing a Dominant chord.

    I don't have an acoustic piano; just two digital pianos. I can hear the beating of the pitches but the only sympathetic vibration I get is from the room and its contents and perhaps the slop in between the lobes of my brain ;)

    It's funny that you bring up Jacob Collier because I've been reviewing a lot of his transcriptions, particularly the ones by June Lee. It looks to me like Jacob, and June, tend to compose in a linear fashion similar to the way that a classical, 4-part harmony composer might, rather than like many jazzers who might think in vertical structures. Part of why I think that, is the quantity of less common chords in their arrangements; like "add 2, no third" or "Major 7 add 4" chords. I think the voice leading is more important to them than the chord function.

    I fell into this "thought experiment" when I was comping to All of Me. For that first chord, I started with a rootless voicing, starting on the Major 7th of the C Major chord. A right-hand voicing, it was easy to add the 9th, Major 3rd, skip the 5th and grab the 6th. So, B D E A. A nice chord for the first, tonic chord. I liked it. Then, it occurred to me to grab the #11, F#, so now B D E F# A, or B-11/C or C^769#11. And I was surprised that despite how un-C Major-triad-like that that chord is, it still sounds very much like a very dressed-up tonic C Major chord. But, add a Bb, Db, Eb, or Ab, and it no longer sounds like a tonic chord, at rest; adding any of those pitches begs for a resolution.

    I recognized a couple of years ago when I was working on my piano skills, just how and why pianists can become so consumed by their voice-leading. As you said, it's just a lot of fun!
  7. To me, a key feature of a dominant 7 in root position is that it has a two step reception process. Because of how the pitches are from early partials of the overtone series as well as the major third and soft dissonance of the minor 7, at first it is pleasant enough. As the tritone interval between 3 and 7 comes forward, it starts to wear out its welcome and beg for resolution.
    Of course inversions alter this.

    Blues chord changes actually restart this process (as well as resolve in the root movement)!
    I came to an understanding of it walking around the zoo in the summer: I was in one area and there was horrific screaming child behind me - I moved to another area of zoo and there was another one! Still, changing out the screaming kid for different screaming kid "restarted the process".

    Any chord with a tritone will want for resolution in a similar way, if it doesn't have a two part process then something different than a dominant 7 is happening.

    Last edited: Feb 8, 2021
    jj.833 and unbrokenchain like this.
  8. Tom Lane

    Tom Lane Gold Supporting Member

    Hmmm, yes, I think that's a good point. A Dominant chord is one that contains a tritone. Does the tritone have to be between the 3rd and th 7th? or in a C chord in the key of C, could it it be between G and Db? B and F? or F and B? The G and Db definitely sound Dominant to me, but the B and F, and F and B, not so much. It's not "resting" but it's only very weakly wanting resolution. Adding an F as the highest note of a C Major 7 voicing sounds SubDominant to me, like an IV chord.

    I've heard that different schools have different names for the "top 3 dissonances" and usually list them as the flat 9th, Major 7th and flat 5. Right now, I don't think I agree with their list, because I hear the Major 7th and flat 5 as being similarly aggressive in terms of wanting to resolve up a halfstep, but I hear the flat 9, sharp 9, and sharp 5 as being really insistent.
  9. I wouldn't call a flat five dissonant, though I also wouldn't call it consonant, to me the harmonic quality it has is unstable, which can be more unsettling than dissonance.

    Tom Lane likes this.
  10. jjqq123


    Aug 16, 2017
    Hey! maybe you are interested in Mike Tomaro´s Instrumental Jazz Arranging.
    Tom Lane likes this.
  11. unbrokenchain

    unbrokenchain Supporting Member

    Jun 8, 2011
    Black Mountain, NC
    It was worth getting on TB this morning just for this :laugh:
    damonsmith likes this.
  12. I'm always a bit puzzled when I read about chords having 'functions'. My own concept - acquired from my studies of, first, classical harmony and counterpoint, and only then jazz harmony and lots of arranging has led me to the conviction that chords don't exist, at least not as entities with specific harmonic functions.

    Chords are a way of shorthand for the ('vertical') cross-sections of parallel ('horizontal') voices in a piece of music, more convenient than sheet music and leaving some space for improvisation. One of those voices is ours, the bass part. No doubt taste is king, but I really dislike bass players who break up say, a half-diminished chord to then move to the next, say, an augmented dominant seventh chord, without showing - from their playing - how these two chords are functionally connected in terms of voicing.

    The punch of this concept is that if at a certain point I decide to incorporate an extra (half) step (or whatever comes up in me) for the sake of a nicer voicing, the chord itself will change, but the chord's function will stay the same.
    mtto likes this.
  13. I think if we think of them as colors it can work better than function. In art even a misunderstanding can lead to great work. I like the idea of trying to describe a chord. Ex. m7 in root position could be described as a dark consonance with a soft dissonance.
    It is also helpful to consider the basic qualities of adding a note:
    1. Add a note already in the chord that does not disrupt the current color or function
    2. Add a note already in the chord that strengthens or accents a quality in the chord
    3. Add new note that does not alter the color or function of the chord but makes it more rich
    4. Add a note that changes a chord.

    You can also think of it as hamburger: Bacon or cheese doesn't disrupt the burgerness of the situation, where an egg, pulled pork or making the patty out of something other than beef might.

    Also, back to my ideas about the secondary reception dynamics of a dominant 7 chord: If a new note or inversion causes dissonance with notes other than the lowest note, then those qualities may emerge as the chord is played rather than on the first sounding of it.

    DrMole and Chris K like this.
  14. Very true. Alterations can add a special flavor to chords, and enhancing chords with additional can really give our music a special flavor. But if a master of this art (e.g. Chick Corea, John Scofield) flavors a chord with some extra's leading to, say, Ebmaj7b9#11, what is the message to us bassists? We carry the band in the harmonic sense, and our concern is not this special flavoring (that obviously has already been taken care of by keys or guitar), and our role is not to squeeze in all of those extensions, but try to keep together the larger picture of the piece by laying down firm lines.
  15. The message to the bassist is to be careful if you play passing notes between the basic chord tones.
    Each alteration alters the basic scale (from the unaltered Version of the chord). Exceptions are only if these notes are still part of the scale but not written down, but then there would be no real added new spice, just a bit more of the already present one.
    Wasnex and Chris K like this.
  16. This brings up an interesting idea, which is how, where and why lines and chords connect. The Western music concept of melody/chord/bass line + possible counter melodies doesn't come through if the music is heard as continuous block of vertical harmony.
    The way we perceive music is more complex than that.
    Various factors such as dynamics, decay, melodic integrity, note length and orchestration (whether improvised on written) makes the lines and chords connect at various points and be autonomous at others.
    A bassist really needs to be careful in general of what the play on the one and what notes they repeat or otherwise lay into. Chromatic lines are going to "separate" from rather than connect to the chord. It is also possible to create a line with enough melodic integrity that it comes through on its own.

    Tom Lane likes this.
  17. Very true. And this is exactly the reason why I prefer to stay away from the prescriptive character of chord symbols.
  18. If you are trained to play root notes on the 1 and lower chord notes on the other beats, that can be limiting. But the training is the problem, not the chord symbols themselves.
    Anyway, I prefer to have a shorthand notation for the scale (which is the full chord) instead of or additionally to a chord symbol.
    But since no one else wants to use that notation ...
  19. I mean, yeah so do I. However, in the study of standards and tunes by jazz composers, it is part of that discipline. Trying to stay away from them isn't really the answer when you are working with that material - which I don't use for my work. You are free to play your own material with its own rules or just to play free. When engaging with chord based material, there are plenty of ways to be free with them while keeping them in mind.

    In my mind too much is really given to what notes to play with chords and more thought could be given to how to take off and land on them! When people talking about "playing changes" it is quite literal - the moment a chord changes is a meeting point. If you learn the various ways of engaging and disengaging with the chordal harmony, there is a lot of melodic and chromatic freedom to be had.
    Tom Lane likes this.
  20. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011
    Wow! What a freaking mouthful. There is no diatonic scale that fits, but Lydian #2 (6th mode) from the Harmonic Minor scale comes close. Of course I am assuming the 13th is Major. I believe the chord function would work out to VIMaj7#9#11, assuming the chord is functional; which is not guaranteed.

    Although I don't have the depth of education to explain, I think it's fairly common to have the (discretionary) choice between b9 and #9 when faced with such a dilemma, so you really have 8 note choices (Eb,Fb,F#,G,A,Bb,C,D). IMHO with the right degree of care, you could probably work in all 8 of these tones into a nice bass line. You could probably even work in a few more carefully chosen notes. Given you don't need to use all of them, I am just making a point that you have a bunch of notes to choose from.

    Regarding the question posed by the thread: AFAIK, individual pitches don't tell you a lot. You have to look at everything. Sometimes the chords are ambiguous to some extent, but then the notes of the melody narrow it down to a specific key center. Or, perhaps the melody is ambiguous as well. No big deal, in jazz you have considerable freedom to color outside the lines, although it's better if you can do it using knowledge and skill, instead of just throwing out a bunch of :poop:.

    I admit I am more if an inside player :(. This is is the logic I would use if I were to see Ebmaj7b9#11; then I would use my ears to confirm my desperate attempt to make sense of the insanity.
    DoubleMIDI likes this.
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