Thoughts on Harmonic Function

Over the years, I’ve developed some fairly unique (or so it seems to me) ways of presenting basic musical concepts.  I’ve had the opportunity to refine these techniques through the theory courses I have taught as well as with private students, workshops, etc.  I am now planning on putting together online courses to share this more widely.  Let me give you some idea of one of the first topics I will be teaching.

The way harmony is taught in classical theory courses tends to not be very relevant to practical applications to jazz, rock, or pop music, even though the concepts themselves are actually still completely sound.  I also feel that the way harmony is generally taught is generally too far removed from both ear training and the creative process (improvisation and/or composition).  My own approach to teaching harmony tries to address these issues.

I start with the same notion of tonic, dominant, and subdominant that you find in classical theory, but I look at it from another angle – on more relevant to the jazz/rock/pop language.  I see chord progressions as a series of short sequences that move back and forth between the tonic and the subdominant – which is to say, between I or iii (tonic) on one hand and ii or IV (subdominant) on the other.  A huge number of standards arrive at one of these chords every two bars.  Notice the dominant function isn’t part of this analysis, and that’s because in this idiom, we seldom “arrive” at the V chord in this way – it’s mostly a *means* of reaching a tonic chord.

Once we learn to see songs as a series of journeys from tonic to subdominant and back, we can then focus on the different routes one might take to get from tonic to subdominant, or from subdominant to tonic (or to kind of spin your wheels on the tonic, or the subdominant, for a couple of measures).  The relationships between the chords themselves generally a follow a set of six principles (e.g., “secondary dominant”, “minor plagal cadence”) that explain almost everything in tonal music.

By looking at harmony in this way, you reach a point where you can learn to hear and understand chord progressions very quickly.  Playing by ear becomes a breeze, as does transposition, and memorization, and one gains new insights into improvisation and composition, as voice leading is also an important part of this.

To some extent, these are the topics I cover in The Harmonic Langauge of Jazz Standards, but I would say I have developed my thinking and my ways of presenting the material considerably since the publication of that book.  And I feel an online course will be the right way to share this – that way I can demonstrate everything much more clearly, and provide a more interactive experience.

If you are interested, please subscribe to this site so I can continue to inform you of new developments.  And if you’d like to support the development of this course, please consider supporting me on Patreon.

Music Theory and “Rules”

I often hear people discussing music theory as if it were a bunch of rules to be followed or broken.  But to me this misses the point.

I like to compare music theory to gravity, and to ask people, “have you ever broken the law of gravity?”  It’s a silly question and often gets silly answers, but I hope my point is clear: the law of gravity is not a rule to be followed or broken; it just is.

Like music theory, the law of gravity doesn’t tell you what to do, it merely tells you about cause and effect.  Gravity doesn’t care whether or not you drop a rock you are holding; it just tells that *if* you let go of that rock, it will fall.  You can choose whether or not to let go based on whether or not you want that rock to fall.  Similarly, music theory doesn’t care whether or not you resolve a dominant chord to the tonic or not; if just tells you that *if* you resolve it that way, the result is satisfying in a particular way.  You can choose whether or not to resolve it based on whether or not you want that particular sense of satisfaction.

Keep this in mind as you study music theory.  No “rule” of music theory ever tells you what you must do; it merely helps you understand the effect of various different things you might try.

In the coming months, I plan to launch a whole new set of articles, lessons, and other resources to help you learn more about voice leading, harmony, rhythm, and other aspects of music theory.  Please subscribe to this site in order to be informed of updates!