Can you please explain the role of that Em7b5 in the following jazz progression in terms of functional harmony?

| Cm7 | Em7b5 | Bbmaj7 | G7 |

  • 2
    What happens after the G7? In comments below, you say the progression loops. Is that all just these four chord repeating, or does it go somewhere else? Jan 21 at 16:04
  • 2
    A melody laid over these chords could make a world of difference in deciding what's a good analysis. Or generally, hearing the progression in a larger context. What about the progression is "jazz"? To me there's nothing that says it has to be jazz in any way. These are quite commonly used chords that could occur in many genres. Jan 21 at 19:01
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica - Personally, I took the question's mentioning that the chord progression is "jazz" to be permission to use some non-common practice period harmony conventions (e.g. tritone substitution) when analyzing that progression.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jan 22 at 12:38

6 Answers 6


Even in tonal music every chord does not need to have a functional role.

Beside the possibility of mixing tonal and non-functional harmony, the obvious case would be a passing chord.

| Cm7 | Em7b5 | Bbmaj7 | G7 |

In that progression Cm7 and Bbmaj7 combine to give all tones for Bb major, the G7 could also be a clear secondary dominant to the Cm7. Without any other details about what this music does, it set's up a very clear possibility for Bb major as the tonic. Nominally it could be...

|     Cm7 | Em7b5 | Bbmaj7 | G7    |
| Bb: ii7 | p.c.  | IM7    | V7/ii |

...I say 'nominally' because you don't have a dominant for Bb.

You could add the dominant with something like this...

|     Cm7 | Em7b5 | Bbmaj7 | G7    | Cm7 | F7 | Bbmaj7
| Bb: ii7 | p.c.  | IM7    | V7/ii | ii7 | V7 | IM7

...I only add the dominant, because your question is posed in terms of functional harmony, and I wanted to complete the picture how what you already have could be emphatically functioning in Bb. Of course harmony does not need to be functional, but to the extent that it is, the dominant is critical for establishing tonality. Adding a dominant (to a tonic, not a secondary dominant) makes the functions clear.

p.c. above means passing chord.

...in terms of functional harmony?

In functional harmony, secondary functions, need to be backed up with some kind of analysis that the purported secondary function is actually fulfilled.

If Em7b5 is supposed to be either viiø7 - or the theoretical incomplete V9 in F major, or iiø7 in D minor, something of either function needs to actually be in the music. The next actual chord is Bbmaj7, which is IVmaj7 in F major or bVImaj7 in D minor.

So, that would give us a dominant to subdominant in F major or subdominant to submediant in D minor. In terms of functional harmony, both are dubious. At best you might call the first some sort of deceptive move and the second pre-dominant movement that never actually moves to it's related dominant.

I think your four chords hint at the possibility of Bb major, but the Em7b5 doesn't seem to have a function to that tonic or convincingly to another. That is not a problem. You can voice the chords so that Em7b5 connects Cm7 to Bbmaj7 in all step-wise motion and consider it a passing chord.

Your function does not fall right into clear tonal function. It's ambiguous. That's why every answer so far gives you completely different analysis. Calling it ambiguous isn't a diagnosis, it's just a description. Unless your purpose is to revise it for clear function, there's nothing to "fix." Although, if you want to embrace ambiguous, non-functional harmony, I'd say don't get hung up on functional analysis. Why do functional analysis if you don't care about function harmony? Look to other musical elements to assess what you're doing.

EDIT to elaborate on comments:

To understand functional harmony you need to understand dominant harmony and to understand dominant harmony you need to understand how the leading tone and subdominant work. I like to do that in solfege and will use that below.

Dominant function at its essence is leading tone TI moving to up tonic DO and subdominant FA moving down to mediant MI. TI and FA are the tones that define a dominant chord. Labeled as chord tones TI and FA are respectively the major third and minor seventh of a dominant chord. This is true in the "classical" style and jazz too.

When tones are altered from diatonic they tend to move in the direction of the alteration. So, for example a tone that is altered by raising it tends to move up a step as its next move. In practical, functional terms, this means raised tones often become new leading tones and lowered tones often act as new subdominants and involve either a modulation or a tonicization. If an altered tone does not act in that functional way, it may be reasonable to then consider the altered tone a chromatic passing tone.

The term passing is applied to a tone or tones that do not belong to a proper chord. In the nomenclature of non-chord tones passing is applied when the case is specifically all the tones involved moving by step in the same direction. Example, in a C major chord, with melodic motion of C D E the D does not belong to the C major chord, but "passes" between chord tones C and E with the whole passage being steps in the same direction.

More than one tone could be involved with a passing motion. The commonest example is the passing 6/4 chord. Example, in C: I6 V6/4 I the V6/4 is considered dissonant, an "improper" chord, with the impropriety being the D in the bass. If the voice leading is such that the bass part is E D C the then D is a passing tone between the chords tones E of I6 and C of I, and the whole chord is referred to as a passing chord.

"Passing" can be applied generally to anything, even entire passages of harmony, that are regarded as unessential to the principle harmonic structure.

Back to the functional analysis.

In Bb major we have this essential functional movement of the subdominant...

enter image description here

In my analysis of Bb major, and the other answers of C minor, either key treats the Eb as a diatonic tone, therefore the E natural of the second chord is an altered tone. With the tendency of raised altered tones to move up that results in E natural becoming a new leading tone tonicizing the dominant...

enter image description here

...tonicizing means that the tone F which is regarded as the dominant scale degree, SOL, in Bb changes to the tonic scale degree, DO, in F. Temporary shifting of the tonic like this is normal in functional harmony.

Even in the case of analyzing the progression in C minor, the alteration of of Eb to E natural would still tend to move up to F, where the E natural again becomes a leading tone, but this time to the subdominant.

enter image description here

...that E natural could be emphatically harmonized with dominant harmony in a C7 chord Cm: V7/iv.

I'll continue looking at it in Bb major.

Let's now look at how you could harmonize E in Bb major, in functional terms, either as unaltered Eb or altered E natural.

Unaltered Eb is the subdominant FA which in a dominant chord will move down to the mediant MI of a tonic chord...

enter image description here

Altered E natural acting in a functional way is the new leading tone TI which in a dominant chord will move up to the tonic DO of a new tonicized chord...

enter image description here

Those two examples are just the basic functional expectation of Eb and E natural in Bb.

Your actual progression does something else. The E natural is the root of a half diminished chord.

It is possible to regard that half diminished chord as an incomplete C9 chord where the E natural is the chord's third. But, in that case the tonic it implies is F.

However, the next chord is not a F chord. It's a Bb chord. You could call it a retrogression or a deceptive progression, but suffice to say it is not progressing in the conventional functional way. As stated before we can then regard the E natural as not a functional tone of a dominant chord, but as a chromatic passing tone.

If we voice the whole chord so that all tones are moving in smooth voice leading step, the entire chord can be regarded as a passing chord.

enter image description here

  • 1
    This makes it seem that the purpose of functional harmony is to correctly label things in an exam. I'd like to expand its practical use to see unfulfilled patterns, what could have happened and what potential expectations were created. Like, seeing that inserting an F7 between Em7b5 and Bbmaj7 would fill a gap. This might give potential patterns to use when writing an arrangement or solo or something. Jan 22 at 16:08
  • @michael curtis what do you exactly mean for passing chords?
    – LeoAn
    Jan 25 at 9:20
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica, I don't know, I've never taken an exam to do harmonic analysis. The practical purpose of harmonic analysis is to identify chords in a key. Personally, I only do that when something stands out as unusual. In this question, the only thing analysis tells me is there isn't a clear case for identifying a tonic, which is why my answer is nominally the progression is in Bb. Why the OP wants to analyze, what will they do with the info: I don't know. Jan 25 at 14:27
  • @LeoAn, I added some more to my answer. Not sure if it answers your question. Do you know the basic definition of passing motion? Jan 25 at 16:56
  • I tried to say, don't get too hung up on the OP's using the word "functional" - he probably just meant all possible kinds of ways to handle the chord, functional or whatever. Which, I guess, the answer now does, with staff notation examples and all. I'd add a couple more things: compare the sound of the half-diminished Em7-5 with (1) fully diminished Edim7, and (2) Eb maj7. And (3) if you do the Bb maj7 as Bb maj9 i.e. Dm7/Bb. How about: Em7-5, Eb maj7, Eb dim7 (i.e. rootless F7b9), Bb maj9. Or: Em7-5, Edim7, Eb dim7, Bb9. Just to see what the progression could be with a few modifications. Jan 26 at 2:26

I have to admit that it's easier for me to think of the Em7♭5 as a voice leading construct, as Cm7 - Em7♭5 only requires shifting the Cm7's C and E♭ one step each and leaving its G and B♭ as is, and Em7♭5 - B♭maj7 only requires shifting the Em7♭5's E and G one step each and leaving its B♭ and D as is.

With that being said, there are at least two ways of trying to fit that Em7♭5 into functional harmony.

Aaron's answer partially alludes to Em7♭5 being a tritone substitution of V7/iv or a rootless version of V9/iv. Tritone substitution involves keeping a tritone in the chord you want to modify, changing at least one other note, and expecting the tritone to resolve the same way (barring enharmonic re-spellings) in both chords.

We can also think of Em7♭5 as (♮)viø7/v, so Cm7 - Em7♭5 - B♭maj7 - G7 can be interpreted as i7 - (♮)viø7/v - III7/v = VII7 - V7.

  • 1
    This is not a progression that has meaning in functional terms. Naming the chords, even applying RNA is fine, but vi - III - I (all "/V") isn't a functional progression. I think you were closer to the mark in calling it a voice-leading progression. Jazz certainly feels no compulsion to adhere to common-practice era rules of harmony, but it often follows more-or-less smooth voice-leading.
    – Aaron
    Jan 21 at 14:13

The Em7b5 here is functioning as a substitute for C9 — that is, it's as though the music shifted from C minor to C major. The C is established as the tonic by the first chord, so the ear will retain it and hear the E chord in that context. Thus in functional harmony terms, the progression would be i | I | VII | V .

(Cm9) (C9)
Cm7   Eb7b5

(D)   D
Bb    Bb
G     G
Eb    E
C     (C)

A similar relationship — an implied minor-to-major shift — exists between the following two chords. Consider that BbM7 contains the upper notes of Gm9.

(Gm9) (G9)
BbM7  G7

A     (A)
F     F
D     D
Bb    B
(G)   G

In that light, the entire progression can be viewed as:

i | I | v | V or i9 | I9 | v9 | V9

  • It's interesting that on this forum, in other questions, excepting a minor blues, which this is not, it's been noted that a minor tonic would not be a minor seventh chord. That would make this minor i seem doubtful. Jan 21 at 16:43
  • 1
    This is what I was about to write! :) The pattern that is here Cm7, Em7b5 appears often as a voicing, whether or not we declare it a "passing chord". Another possibility for the next harmony would be some sort of F (for which that seeming E-chord is a rootless C, dominant 7), etc. But the ambiguity of that E-chord may be useful in getting to the Bb... :) Jan 22 at 22:11

| Cm7 | Em7b5 | Bbmaj7 | G7 |

The Em7b5 works as a secondary dominant in the sense that it makes you expect an F something chord, the E note sounds like a leading tone heading to F. But instead of an F based chord, the progression gives you a Bb chord. So a secondary dominant function doesn't really get fulfilled, the desire and wanting is interrupted. But when reasoning about what's happening in the progression, it's good to know the "what could have happened" and what expectations the chords created in your mind along the way.

Do you feel that the home chord is C minor, or maybe G minor? Or Bb major? What's the key in your opinion? To me the Bb being a maj7 makes it sound like it's more in Gm or Bb than in Cm.

You could respell the Em7b5 as C9/E. Which could be simplified as C7/E. Or even just C/E. Or just a plain E note without anything else, given this context.

To try and feel how the secondary dominant would have worked, had there been the F chord. How would this sound like to you:

| Cm7 | C9/E | F7 | Bbmaj7 |

Now you're in Bb major. Or I am at least, YMMV.

But back to the original progression, the G7 could be a secondary dominant going back to Cm7, if you think the real key is Gm or Bb. Or if you feel the real key is Cm, then the G7 would be Cm's dominant. But nevertheless, the Em7b5 still works as a potential secondary dominant in all interpretations, in the sense of creating expectations.

  • 1
    How would Em7b5 actually work as a secondary dominant if the key is Bb or Gm? It doesn't do anything to actually function that way. Jan 21 at 16:45
  • 1
    If dominant seventh chord doesn't actually do anything to function as a V there is no justification for calling it a V. Non-function dominant seventh chords are a thing. Jan 21 at 18:22
  • What discussion? It does not necessarily need to be an F chord, and I have never said that kind of thing before. It just needs to do something to justify the claim. Putting key labels with RNA will make a big difference instead of sprinkling Roman numerals into comments. Jan 21 at 18:37
  • Oh, I just remember talking about this many times before, sorry. This may seem like an inappropriate analogy, but it's justifiable to call a dance sexy, even though it doesn't eventually lead to intercourse. But the mechanisms are there all the same. In a way the whole art of music-making is about creating feelings, don't you agree? You hint about something, reveal a bit ... but then don't give it to the listener. Maybe it's an unorthodox way of looking at music. I tried to edit the answer to remove the claim about actually being a secondary dominant, from all points of view at least. Jan 21 at 18:42
  • The OP is asking something specific functional analysis. Just write a Roman numeral analysis for the whole progression. First let an analysis do the talking, then elaborate with some discussion. Jan 21 at 18:48

Em7♭5 is a re-voicing of Gm6. Gm is the relative minor of B♭ major. So another slant on the sequence could be ii7 > vi6 > I▵ > V/ii. Does the pattern loop at that point, or does it develop further? Right now, more information would elicit a clearer answer.

  • The pattern loop
    – LeoAn
    Jan 21 at 13:07
  • 1
    Just trying to keep this reasonably functional vi7 would be Gm7 not Gm6, the E natural of Gm6 would be a #4 in Bb. For a chord that would be implying a tonality that's reaching pretty far. Jan 21 at 16:33

I'd actually take a completely different take than the other answers here. The sequence

Cm7 | Em7b5 | BbMaj7 | G7

Is likely a root of Eb progression. Cm7 is VI, BbMaj7 is V (though Maj7 chords are frequently IV) and Em7b5 is likely a tritone substitution for BbMaj7. A more clear example is the a II V I in the key of Eb, with Cm7 serving as a substitute of Fm7. A more commonly extended version of II V I is III VI II V I. Keeping this assumption in mind, Em7b5 is substitute for II (which is a flat II in key of Eb). It's difficult to ascertain which is the intention without looking at the key the melody is playing in.

Since the question asked about the Em7b5, the G7 was mostly ignored but I doubt that will change the options here. If the 4 chord progression is repeated as written above, then it's clearly III VI II V (I) without resolving the root if the composer wanted to make some artistic substitutions (flat II substituting II, dominant III replacing III, Maj7 replacing dominant on V) but it's difficult to give a decisive answer without the key or surrounding chords. But the answer fundamentally boils down to it being an embellishment; a substitution for an otherwise standard chord.

After thinking about it for a while, there is another common progression that this does follow (Rock/Alternative/Fusion progression) VI IV V III. The entire explanation above is the same (same key and same replacements for the standard chords) but the Em7b5 is a substitution for IV. This explanation doesn't require much of an intuitive leap as (III) VI II V repeated as the bar starts on the correct measure instead of one measure behind. So now it will be `VI bIIm7b5 VMaj7 III7, with bIIm7b5 substituting IV, VMaj7 substituting the common V7 and III7 substituting the common IIIm7.

  • Are saying it is this: Eb: vi7 | bII7b5 | Vmaj7 | V7/vi? Jan 21 at 22:26
  • @MichaelCurtis The last is III (G is III of Eb). I frequently do tritone substitutions for V especially (e.g. Fm7 Bb7/Bb7b5 EbMaj7). A dominant with a flat 5th is the chord as it's tritone dominant with a flat 5th, that is to say that Bb7b5 is indistinguishable from E7b5. So a Em7b5 is not how I would have made the substitution but it's the same form regardless.
    – uberhaxed
    Jan 21 at 22:54
  • You say that "Em7b5 is likely a tritone substitution for BbMaj7" - where is the tritone in a BbMaj7 chord? I'm getting Bb-D-F-A here, with no tritone.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jan 22 at 12:26
  • @Dekkadeci that's not how chord substitution works, it has nothing to do with the notes in the chord your substituting.
    – uberhaxed
    Jan 22 at 13:08

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