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Deciding chord symbols for chords is always ambiguous and leaves a room of doubt.

I attempted to write chord symbols for chords with pitches of mixed duration in m.1 from the second downbeat to the end of the measure.

IV - iv - ii halfdim in 1st inversion

Is realizing every chords at each down/upbeat correct?

Or should I ignore IV or ii halfdim in 1st inversion?

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  • "Deciding chord symbols for chords is always ambiguous": not always. In many cases (indeed in a majority of cases in most music) there is no ambiguity whatsoever.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 13 at 10:22

4 Answers 4

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I've talked before about "lenses." If you're doing an assignment for a teacher, they might want a certain level of detail (and hopefully will communicate it well!), but if it's for your own interests, you can analyze the piece at any level.

As I've said on past questions, I recommend working from broadest to finest detail. So the very biggest "lens" might be much bigger than this excerpt. But looking just at the first two measures:

  • The first lens is to observe that these two measures "go nowhere." Measure 2 is identical to the start of m 1. Whatever else we say about m 1, it has done no "work" harmonically. We might describe these two measures as an "elaboration" or tonicization of I.
  • As we zoom in and try to say something more substantive about the second half of m 1, the first observation is that it's a nice garden-variety root-position IV. So "I - IV - I" is enough of an analysis for this lens. And for my own purposes, I'd be inclined to stop here and move on.
  • But if we really need to explain that Fb and Bb, we can do a few things. We can essentially stay at the "I - IV - I" lens and call them passing motion. Just because there's both a sixth and a fifth above the root doesn't force us to identify it as an inverted seventh chord; analyzing the progression as "I - IV - I" makes more sense than inserting a ii; it's just plagal motion. We still call it "IV," but the third has been lowered and an additional non-chordal sixth has been added.
  • So what the heck is a IV with added 6 and flat 3? Well for one thing, it's a thing that happens a lot, with resolution to I. It's that "20th-Century Fox fanfare" sound. Steve Laitz calls it "The Hollywood Cadence." I don't see an in-depth coverage on the internet, but this article mentions it and cites Laitz's The Complete Musician textbook. Ironically, I guess I've at this point zoomed back out a few lenses: I label the whole thing "Hollywood cadence" and go about my day.

So the answer to "at what level of rhythmic subdivision should I apply chord labels" is "it depends." If something does the work of a new chord, call it a new chord, regardless of its rhythm. If it doesn't contribute meaningfully to the overall harmonic motion, it's probably not worth calling it anything other than some voice-leading motion, regardless of its rhythm.

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Not all notes are equally important; choosing which stack of notes to be labeled with a chord symbol should reflect this!

The measures quoted is from the beginning of Chopin's Nocturne in A Flat Major Op. 32 No. 2. Hear this sample performance where you can clearly discern that the top notes are melody and the first two measure prominently and ominously announce a motif to acclimate the audience of what is to come.

Selecting the most important notes, for the 1st measure I would choose the chords on the 1st, 3rd, and 4th beats to be labelled. But I would ignore the top B-flat in the second half of the fourth beat, which is simply a melodic passing tone, so no chord label there.

In contrast, the most important moment in that measure is the surprise transition from Db to Dbm as pianist Grigory Sokolov highlights the F-flat in his performance. Thus, for analysis-sake, the F-flat is NOT merely a passing tone but a critical note in the chord transition from the 3rd beat to the 4th beat, making the 4th beat chord a MUST to be notated also, even though it's an upbeat. In Claudio Arrau's performance the semitone descent from F to F-flat to E-flat are more evenly rendered (with a decrescendo) than Sokolov's interpretation, giving us a clue that those 3 notes are the most important notes of the 3 chords and that only those 3 chords should have chord symbols.

When the first section starts, every beat is significant to have a chord symbol added.

Here's what we come up with:

Ab      Db   Dbm  | Ab    || Ab    Abdim  Ab    Eb7   | ...
I       IV   iv   | I     || I     Idim   I     V7    | ...

There is no diminished chord sense intended by Chopin in the first measure, even if it exists notation-wise it's an accidental byproduct, so there's no need to notate it. But in the 2nd beat of the 3rd measure we DO sense a diminished chord, so we notate accordingly.

CONCLUSION: there is NO general rule such as "to notate every chord every down/upbeat", but you should first attempt to pick up the significant notes and significant moments worthy of being labeled with a chord symbol.

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I would ignore the legato in between because they're not actually chords BUT if the intent is that they are part of the chord, which I would say they are because they don't belong to the next chord, then the strum and legato are all part of the same chord and should be noted.

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In this case I would say beat 4 is Dbm chord because the Db and Ab are held over and the F is replaced by the Fb.

As for the final 8th note, that is probably better interpreted as a melodic passing tone than a new chord. However, if you really want to name it as a chord, you have a Db, Ab, Db, Fb and Bb. You CAN call it a Bb half diminished in 1st inversion but it would be more logical to call it a Dbm6 in this context because of the holdover of the Root and 5th. A minor 6th chord and an 1st inversion half diminished chord with the same bass note are identical.

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