Does there exist literature examining the particular psychological/emotional role/reputation of each chord in a movement? (For example, I am currently infatuated with IVmaj7, which is to say I find myself more and more crafting hooks that depend heavily on this chord, and wish to understand better historic thinking on things like this.)

  • Welcome to the site! We try not to give recommendations because of how specific they are. My answer below will be a bit more general. Dec 23, 2014 at 14:46
  • Question seeks a reference to literature. Updated question to clarify how I'm using the chord.
    – commonhare
    Dec 23, 2014 at 15:06
  • From a book called "Analysing Bach Cantatas": "...the weakening of tonic cadences by means of emphasis on the subdominant is one of Bach's most striking and effective means of representing the human condition in need of aid from God...". THIS is the kind of (subjective) analysis I am looking for. I find it fascinating.
    – commonhare
    Dec 23, 2014 at 15:30
  • I am still a bit unclear exactly how you are using the chord. You only mention that you greatly enjoy the sound of it. JS Bach has many good harmonic moves (including a iim7b5|6/5 substitute for IV) and incredible numerological associations (such as the use of the octave in penultimate cadential chords to represent Heaven and Hell), among others. Upon further inspection, I see you're looking for each chord. For that, I should point you toward the Doctrine of Ethos and associated writings. Dec 23, 2014 at 22:36
  • 1
    To the people that voted to close: considering the Doctrine of Ethos and writings of Greek philosophers, this question has historical precedent. It is on topic, and research in this area (albeit old) can be cited and sourced. Dec 24, 2014 at 15:42

3 Answers 3


Try Twentieth-Century Harmony: Creative Aspects and Practice by Vincent Persichetti. While it is not based on functional harmony, it has a section that specifically addresses the sounds made by combining different triads, as well as tetrachords, and it gives literal descriptions of how these chords "sound" ("acidic" and other descriptive adjectives).

Also, if you want to go back far enough, Plato and Aristotle (c. 350 BC) wrote treatises on the effect of harmoniai on a person's mood/personality/character. You might find it funny that the Lydian mode (referring to your IVmaj7 chord) was discouraged!

  • Great recommendation with the Persichetti. Just a note, the Ancient Greek writers used Lydian with an entirely different meaning than we do. We took their terms, and, at the time, medieval writers thought they were using them correctly, but we now know they're quite different. Jan 1, 2015 at 1:04

Music has not always been written with chords in mind. Throughout history, there have been different relationships between notes that formed stylistic zeitgeists that we now think of as musical periods.

Historically, there have been certain chord progressions that have been common, but few composers wrote toward a specific progression; the way much contemporary popular music is written now. Other composers, such as Richard Wagner and Hector Berlioz, used individual musical motifs to provide coherence in their music.

Much like literary language changes over time, so too does musical language.

It sounds like you are using your IVmaj7 more like a Imaj7. You should think about relabeling your chords so you are landing on a Imaj7. This will change the function of your other chords and will help you have a clearer understanding of your language.

  • Nevertheless, I wonder if placement of the "wow" moment in a theme over a particular harmony has been historically analysed. Like for pop music in the last thirty years, hooks built on I-IV-V might very possibly outnumber others...I recognise this is a nuanced question.
    – commonhare
    Dec 23, 2014 at 15:12
  • I completely agree that "hooks" built on common chord progressions such as the one you mentioned. Regarding your inquiry, it is a logical conclusion most composers reach - the synthesis of melody and harmony at the apex of activity in a piece of music, the culmination of what "the piece is about". You find this often in Beethoven - a subtle three-note bass line at the beginning becomes the entire harmonic progression for the entire development. Dec 23, 2014 at 22:30

"...the particular role/reputation of each chord in a movement..."

The key term you're looking for here is functional harmony. In a typical harmonic analysis, you determine what the chords are in terms of their root (e.g. 4th scale degree) and their quality (e.g. major chord, with a major 7th) to determine the name of the chord (e.g. IVmaj7). In functional harmony, you then analyze this chord in its placement within a progression to determine it's function. Chords are assigned one of the following functions: Tonic, Dominant, or Predominant (also called Subdominant), sometimes abbreviated by the initial letter. Many chord progressions can then be analyzed in terms of representing P->D->T.

As an example, some common D chords include not just V, but also V7, V9, viidim7, and ♭II7. Some common P chords include IV, IVmaj7, iv, ii, and ii7. Thus P->D->T encompasses not just the common IV-V-I, but also things like ii7-♭II7-Imaj7, or even IV-V-vi (which could also be seen, in the relative key, as ♭VI-♭VII-i), and a wide variety of other progressions.

There lot's of information out there on functional harmony. Here's one page to get you started.

Edit: Reading your comment about Analyzing Bach Cantatas, I realize this probably won't give you exactly what you want, because such associations are (as you admit) largely subjective. However, it will give you a framework for understanding these types progressions.

  • Added "psychological/emotional" to clarify the thrust of my question.
    – commonhare
    Dec 23, 2014 at 15:48
  • To define the wackiness-limit of my interest: in a songwriting book I once read, the author included a list of moods evoked by particular keys...this I found a bit too subjective (though the science of how we respond to particular frequencies may yet be developed!).
    – commonhare
    Dec 23, 2014 at 15:56
  • 1
    Such psychological roles can be understood in functional terms. If T represents a stable resolution or completion, and D represents a tension towards T that needs to be resolved, then P can be seen as being an imperfect otherness. It is neither the tonic, nor does it clearly point towards the tonic (at least not when compared to D). Again, this is all subjective, so, of course, other readings are possible. Dec 23, 2014 at 15:57
  • That is very interesting, and so simple! "An imperfect otherness." Original thought?
    – commonhare
    Dec 23, 2014 at 15:58
  • Perhaps. I don't recall hearing it before. Pretty much just making stuff up at this point. ;) Dec 23, 2014 at 15:59

This site is temporarily in read-only mode and not accepting new answers.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .