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I have some background in classical harmony, and now I'm reading through "The Chord Scale Theory and Jazz Harmony" by B. Nettles and R. Graf as an introduction to modern harmony. In Ch. 2 they introduce the idea of harmonic function of chords, which they divide into tonic (T - stable), subdominant (SD - unstable) and dominant (D - very unstable). They classify the I, III and VI chords as T, the II and IV as SD, the V as D (VII is context dependent).

At the end of the chapter, they suggest an analysis of the song "Killing Me Softly" for harmonic functions. I've had a go, but I have a couple of doubts, so I was wondering what other people would make of it.

Firstly, here are the chords as best as I could decipher them (transposed a semitone down):

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My analysis is:

  • Em: I chord, T function

  • Am7: IV chord, SD function

  • D7: VII chord, D function, also secondary dominant of G.

  • G: III chord, T function

  • Em: I chord, T function

  • A: IV of parallel major. I am tempted to say SD function, because in the progression the next chord seems to build up even more tension. However, A is also the secondary dominant of D

  • D: VII chord, D function

  • C: VI chord, T function

  • G: III chord, T function? But also secondary dominant of C. I am inclined to decide T because not much feels to be happening harmonically in the C - G - C part

  • C: VI chord, T function

  • F: Phrygian II chord (aka Neopolitan), not sure of the function?

  • E: I chord major (Picardy third), T function

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First of all, you're reading a very good book from which you'll learn a lot about jazz harmony. One important thing to realize when analyzing jazz progressions is that there is no right and wrong. Nobody can disagree with your analysis if you hear it the way you say you do. The problem with beginners (and I don't say that you are one) is that often they just come up with some more or less reasonable analysis based on what they know, instead of on what they hear.

I'll tell you what I hear in the progression in your question:

Em:  VI
Am7: II
D7:  V
G:   I
[ I can't help hearing this progression as a standard VI-II-V-I,
  where the roots move down in perfect fifths ]
[ Em A ]: II-V (in D)
D: I (V)    [ ambiguous: D mixolydian / G major]
C: VII (IV) [ ambiguous: D mixolydian / G major]
---
G: I (V of C)
C: IV (I, V of F)
F: I (IV of C, VI of Am)
---
[ note that the last 3 chords move down in perfect fifths, so each chord
 is the V chord of the next, a very strong progression, which could be
 continued; try moving on to Bb, Eb, etc., it works. ]
E: V of Am (relative minor of C major)

This is not necessarily what you need to hear, but as an exercise, try to hear it that way and see if you agree or not. This is the way to learn to hear your own way of analyzing progressions.

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Your functional analysys is correct, I especially liked when you wrote G (tonic) , and it's a thing that they did a lot in the Baroque Era and Classical Era, using, for example, a Major key and its relative minor (or viceversa)- Now, the only thing that I don't agree with (but it's very common in the music-theory world) is the fact that one has to give adjectives like "stable" and "unstable" to chords - in a generic way- without considering the composition! A composition is made of the interplay of melody with the chords progression- the mere chords, call them "tonic" "dominant" or what you like, if isolated from the melody, do not have stable or unstable qualities, in my personal view, and it's very distracting from the real purpose of music

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