The term applies to music that works within a tonal framework and uses chords that have specific functions in that tonality. The functionality of a given chord is based on where the chord “wants” to go next because a harmonic progression has two dimensions: the chord’s pitches and how they are interacting (interval hierarchy); and its function in the overall harmonic context. So, functional harmony goes through the cycle of creating and releasing tension and as a result we have stable and unstable moments that vary in different degrees of intensity. The three most important functions are:
- The Tonic; can either be or feel very stable, and generally is the final chord of a piece of music or a section
- The Sub-Dominant; prepares the harmonic cadence and introduces some degree of instability
- The Dominant; the most unstable chord that wants to resolve to another chord
The table below shows the strongest function degrees on one side and the substitute degrees of such functions. Although these can be used to replace the main function degrees, they are weaker in their respective function.
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