Chord Function: The Compass to Flowing Chord Progressions
If you’ve ever tried to write a song you might have run into the problem that your chords or powerchords don’t seem to connect well. They might sound like they don’t flow into each other, or maybe you are having trouble making transitions that flow smoothly from one song section to the next. How do artists and bands make chord progressions that flow so beautifully? What are you missing to do the same?
The missing piece you are looking for is understanding Chord Function.
Chord Function is the role of each chord in a chord progression. There are 3 function types: Tonic, Subdominant, and Dominant. Each chord type has increasing amounts of tension, with Tonic being the least tense to Dominant being the most tense.
Types of Chord Function
Now that you know there are 3 types of Chord Function (Tonic, Subdominant and Dominant), let’s take a look at how they are used.
In terms of tension, we often say that Tonic feels like being “home” while Subdominant feels like being “away from home” and Dominant being the “furthest from home”.
Due to this relationship chords will want to naturally flow in a certain direction.
- Tonic (or Home) Chords want to go “away from home” to Subdominant or Dominant chords.
- Subdominant (or Away from Home) Chords want to either go back to Tonic (Home) or Dominant (further from Home).
- Dominant (Furthest from Home) Chords want to go back to Tonic (Home) chords because they want to resolve the tension.
This seems simple but is very powerful when you are writing chord progressions. By keeping in mind where your chords naturally want to flow, you can make chord progressions that make sense and sound great.
Keep in mind this is a guideline, it is not an unbreakable rule. So use your ears and your best judgment when applying it. For example, sometimes when a chord progression wants to go somewhere and you go to a different place it can add surprise and sound good in context with the entire song. Context is important.
The Function of Each Chord in a Key
As you may already know, each chord in a Major or Minor key is assigned a Roman Numeral like the ones below.
I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – viio
i – iio – III – iv – v – VI – VII
For both Major and Minor keys the chord functions for each degree are as follows:
- The 1st, 3rd, and 6th degrees are Tonic (Home).
- The 2nd and 4th degrees are Subdominant (Away from Home).
- The 5th and 7th degrees are Dominant (Furthest from Home).
You might notice that even though the degrees serve the same functions, the chord qualities are different in major and minor.
What I mean is, for example, the 4th degree is a Major chord in a Major scale but in a Minor scale it is a Minor chord. This is fine, so don’t worry about this.
How to Use Chord Function to Make Progressions
So lastly let’s take a look at how to make a progression.
Let’s say we want to make a progression that has 4 chords and is in the key of C major.
C Major Key Chords
I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – viio
Cmaj, Dmin, Emin, Fmaj, Gmaj, Amin, Bdim
Well, we know our:
- Tonic chords are the 1st, 3rd, and 6th degree chords
- Subdominant are the 2nd and 4th degree chords
- Dominant are the 5th and 7th degree chords
So let’s make this our progression:
I – iii – IV – V
Cmaj, Emin, Fmaj, Gmaj
Tonic, Tonic, Subdominant, Dominant
So if we look at the functions of the chords, we basically have low tension in the first two, then a bit more tension in the 3rd chord and the most tension at the end so that when we repeat the progression that last chord resolves to the tonic chord with the least tension.
This is how we make a progression keeping in mind what the functions are. We are looking for how we play with tension and release and where the sound of the chord wants to go.
This is what is going to make your progressions flow beautifully.
Wrapping it up
So there you have it. This simple concept will help guide how you make progressions so they can flow smoothly.
As I mentioned, there are exceptions, so this is meant to be a guideline to keep in mind how you play with tension and release, both chords harmony-wise, and feeling-wise.
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