I know that "functional harmony" describes the tendencies of certain chords to "lead" or "resolve" to other chords, but from what I've seen so far -- I've only recently begun studying theory after decades of playing music primarily by ear -- those tendencies seem to be categorized primarily by their "strength" or "weakness."

I'm wondering whether any effort has been made to describe certain harmonic functions in more physical or spatial terms, like "twisting" or "lifting" or "narrowing" or "opening." (I know this sounds very vague, but it seems like there are various sensations that certain harmonic devices consistently produce, and that describing them in such terms could provide a practical cookbook for composers.)

If anyone could point me in the right direction, or just explain why this question might be naive or unanswerable, I'd greatly appreciate it!


2 Answers 2


Try this...

The subjective qualities he uses are more about grammar and social etiquitte. Also, this book prefers looking at the 'changes' in voice leading terms rather than chords analyzed with roman numerals. But, that is point of historical nuance, you will be able to identify chords easily.

In terms of cataloging changes, the book is organized with chapters devoted to particular changes (schema is what Gjerdingen calls them) and an appendix summarizing the schemata.

Another textbook that sticks in my mind is...

While this doesn't focus on long progressions it has sections dealing with particular chords and root changes. It uses the typical strong/weak descriptions, but real examples are given about how they can be used effectively. For example, a root ascending by third is described as weak, but an example from Wagner - demonstrating a gentle, gliding expression - is given for how to use it. The author tries to include examples from a very wide variety of types: classical, jazz, folk, etc. Probably not what you really want, but you may find it interesting.


You may want to check out Dan Harrison's Harmonic Function in Chromatic Music.

It doesn't fully address the "physical or spatial terms" that you're asking about, but it does have two things that may interest you:

  • It discusses different types of functional "discharge," and it's often less about the strength of a given progression and more about the type of progression that it is.
  • It includes an impressively extensive overview of the history of "harmonic function" and different views of it. In these last 100+ pages, there's likely something more in line with what you're after.

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