Many theorists from Rameau to Schoenberg and Piston have attempted to analyse chord progressions by describing patterns in their root movements. However, none of these fully describes the syntax of chord progressions. Please refer to the Outline Thesis and the Q and A sections of this site for further information on the history of such theories. A more complete description is being prepared for inclusion in Chapter 10: Historical Background.

Previous attempts have proven inadequate because, in order to establish clear patterns, two factors have to be taken into account in the analysis. Firstly, as explained in the last chapter, it is necessary to make a distinction between two types of harmony: static and dynamic harmony. Secondly, some vertical note combinations, whilst appearing to be independent harmonies in their own right, arise out of voice leading. These types of movement are sometimes referred to as melodic to distinguish them from movements which are genuinely harmonically based. When these are discounted from the analysis, patterns in the root progressions become clearer.

Static and dynamic harmony were described in Chapter 2. In this chapter, I will deal with the second factor which I will refer to as functionality.

All theories of harmony make an assumption about functionality whether explicitly or implicitly. Most theorists would accept that certain note combinations are not chords in their own right but arise due to some type of melodic or voice leading movement in one or more of the voices. They nevertheless differ in what they would consider to be significant. I hope to present a clearer and more objective way of defining what is functional and what is non-functional. This should overcome any suspicions that chords are being ignored simply because they do not fit the theory. The justification for taking the position explained in this chapter is based on research into patterns in chord progressions. For more information on how these patterns have been established, please refer to the outline thesis.

For a theory of functionality to be credible it is important that the principles deployed to determine functionality are clear and simple and independent of the results derived. It is important that there should be some rational reason for excluding chords from the root progression analysis. The method deployed must satisfy the following conditions:

  • It must be clear and unambiguous
  • It must be based on concrete research data
  • It must be applied in a consistent manner
  • It must be applied in such a way that it is independent of the end result

In other words, the reduction of music to an harmonic outline that lends itself to adequate root analysis, must be carried out by a system of rules that is as objective as possible. In other words, the method should not be normative i.e. it should not lead to predetermined results but should uncover what is in the music itself.

Whilst many non-functional chords are totally diatonic, it is important to mention chromatic harmonies as these are frequently deployed as non-structural filling-in chords which decorate the underlying harmony. This is because chromatic stepwise movements lend themselves easily to the production of chromatic auxiliary notes, passing notes and appoggiaturas. These add variety and interest without causing the ear to lose track of the underlying harmony or tonality.

Chords that do not contain a perfect 4th or 5th do not enable the ear to easily determine a root for the chord. Consequently, these chords are normally used as non-functional chords. These include the diminished 7th chord, the augmented 5th chord and the various forms of the augmented 6th chord*. These chords are non-functional due to their very nature. Other non-functional chords are note combinations that in other circumstances would be heard as functional chords. Simple triads and 7th chords can be used as non-functional chords when they arise from voice leading movement such as passing notes, auxiliary notes or appoggiaturas. The latter types are ones that can lead to misinterpretation as they are easy to mistake as functional harmony.

* One form of the augmented 6th chord (the German 6th chord) does contain a perfect fifth, but due to the way the augmented 6th interval resolves outwards, the chord behaves like a non-functional chord except where it is reinterpreted and resolves like a dominant 7th chord in a new key. See Glossary: augmented 6th chord and Chapter 7: Modulation via Chromatic Chords and also chromaticism in the Voice Leading Appendix.

There are three types of non-functional chord that could be confused with functional chords: The Auxiliary Chord, The Passing Chord and The Appoggiatura Chord. The reason for giving these chords special names is not because they have a special significance but because they are capable of being confused with functional chords. In reality, they arise out of voice leading just as other surface voice leading patterns (passing notes, auxiliary notes etc) do. The first type was introduced in the last chapter as it is important in forming static harmony patterns. The second type occurs frequently and in many forms. The third type is significant mainly as a device for elaborating the cadence by extending the dominant (and sometimes the tonic) harmony.

Before we explore each type in turn it may be useful to summarise how we can distinguish between functional and non-functional chords. By far the most important and defining factor is the first rule i.e. That non-functional chords are made up from auxiliary notes, passing notes or appoggiaturas (i.e. voice leading patterns) whereas functional chords are not. However the additional guidelines may also be helpful in correct identification.


The components of the chord do not arise as a result of auxiliary notes, passing notes or appoggiaturas.

Other factors that may help in identification:

Almost always a major or minor triad (with or without an added 7th 9th etc.)

Usually on stronger beats than associated non-functional chords

Likely to be in a stronger inversion than associated non-functional chords

Likely to be more consonant than non-functional chords

Except for alterations to the 3rd of the chord (and in cycles of 5ths), are not usually chromatic.


The components of the chord arise as a result of auxiliary notes, passing notes or appoggiaturas.

Other factors that may help in identification:

Less likely to be a major or minor triad (with or without an added 7th 9th etc.)

Usually on weaker beats than associated functional chords

Likely to be in a weaker inversion than associated functional chords

Likely to be less consonant than functional chords

Are often chromatic.

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Ver. 2.6