In a recent conversation I had, there was a disagreement regarding the definition of Functional Harmony. As I've understood it, Functional Harmony would be defined by chords having a function and is generally distinct from Modal Harmony, Atonal Harmony and Non-Functional Harmony (obviously). We were debating whether the classic I-V-vi-IV pop progression would be considered functional or not. In my thought process, this wouldn't be functional, as the actual functions of the chords are never fulfilled: the dominant chord never resolves to the tonic; the predominant chord never precedes the dominant chord. They argued that the dominant resolves to vi, which is a tonic functioning chord, giving a deceptive cadence, and the IV resolving to I gives a plagal cadence. In my estimation, the V-vi relationship doesn't really feel like a cadence, as it's in the middle of the phrase, but even if it were thought of this way, the progression would still never be giving the true V-I cadence; resolving to a tonic functioning chord alone does not satisfy the dominant to tonic relationship. So I would think of this progression as being more so a Modal progression, most commonly Ionian mode.

In short, does Functional Harmony require that the Dominant to Tonic relationship be fulfilled and, if not, what are the boundaries of Functional Harmony?

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    There doesn't have to be a perfect cadence, and, isn't the Ionian mode exactly the same as the major scale as we know it?
    – Tim
    Sep 17, 2018 at 13:58
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    I would think of that progression as functional, since it sounds like the chords are moving away from a tonic and back again. I think of modal harmony as more static, with little in the way of chord movement (or really, with chords that are more incidental). But, here is a discussion of modal harmony that has at least one respondent near the top who talks about this very progression, and agrees with you. Interesting question; I look forward to some definitive answers...;)
    – user39614
    Sep 17, 2018 at 14:04
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    @Tim - They certainly have the same notes but I would definitely say it is entirely possible to have a song in Ionian that would not best be described as being Major, which is really the crux of my question. I'd be curious to hear you elaborate on your thoughts about not requiring a perfect cadence and the potential of Ionian and Major being synonymous. Sep 17, 2018 at 15:07
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    @DavidBowling - Thanks for sharing that link. Overall it seems like many in that discussion have the same issue I'm having. The main difference I see there is one that has come up here on SE, where there seems to be an issue with whether or not Tonality and Functional Harmony are synonymous. It seems that it would make more sense to not think of them as the same thing, where I'd argue Modal and Functional music are distinct but Modal music is Tonal, in that there is a tonal center. Sep 17, 2018 at 15:10
  • Although the Ionian is sort of a mode taken from the old Aeolian, it's now the most used, so yes, I would consider them synonymous. In fact, it's usually taken that the Ionian is the parent key of the other modes using the same notes. A perfect cadence is not the only one ending in I. The plagal, as you mentioned, also does, and also signifies an ending, which the other two cadences don't really do. Amen to that...
    – Tim
    Sep 17, 2018 at 15:22

6 Answers 6


A complete explanation of what functional harmony is seems too broad, so instead I will merely assert as an answer that, as mentioned in a comment, the presence or absence of cadences does not seem to have any effect on whether a piece can reasonably be analyzed as functional harmony.

The core element of functional harmony is the idea that each chord has a certain relationship to a tonal center, called the tonic in FH (forgive the abbreviation) and also popularly called the "keynote". So if we perceive that there is a meaningful relationship between each chord used and a central note such that we "feel" that note is set up as a tonal center, we could usefully analyze the piece in question with functional harmony.

Note a very important concept: a piece isn't definitively a case of any kind of harmonic system - it's just a piece of music. A more useful way to look at things is whether we can use a particular music theoretic framework to gain insight into a piece. So, it's not so helpful to ask "is this pop song an example of functional harmony?" Instead, we might ask, "can we understand this piece better if we analyze it using functional harmony."

My experience with pop and rock is that generally, functional harmony is a useful framework for understanding the music, especially if you view modal mixture to be a limited departure from functional harmony or even a way of advancing functional harmony. This is because pop and rock songs generally do have a tonal center, and the chords used are usually diatonic with respect to that center and embody their functions with respect to that center.

One way to "hear" how well a piece can be understood with functional harmony might be to simply play the candidate tonic chord and if it sounds like a resolution or contains no musical tension, then you have at least established the tonic function for that chord.

  • So what about how this compares to the pop and rock songs that are pretty definitively modal? A whole lot of pop and rock doesn't utilize the major scale as its grounding and could meet the criteria you put forward, where there is a definitive feeling of home on a specific chord and that other chords within the progression feel like they're moving to or from that chord and ultimately provide a feeling of wanting to resolve back to that tonal center. Sep 17, 2018 at 15:41
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    @Basstickler Remember there isn't some kind of division of "these songs are functional harmony and these songs aren't". It's more about whether using the concept of functional harmony is helpful or not. Very little music actually fits into any single category for analysis. It's the unexpected innovations that make music interesting. You can take the same song and look at it through the lens of functional harmony and then look at it again through a different lens. There's no reason to try to pigeonhole music into music theoretic "genres". Sep 17, 2018 at 16:08
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    Yeah, that's kind of where the argument I was having was left, that the definition isn't necessarily important, as long as everyone involved in a given conversation can understand what is being talked about and whether or not it's useful to think of things one way or another. However, I'm hoping to have a more academic understanding, which is why I'm seeking a more formal definition. I'd definitely argue that a very large amount of Classical and Jazz can very easily be defined as Functional, as well as plenty of other music but things are certainly more ambiguous in rock and pop. Sep 17, 2018 at 16:41
  • I can't even tell if the question is "Is this progression a functional progression" or if it's "Is this analysis a functional analysis". This answer is the one which answers the question best.
    – Beanluc
    Sep 17, 2018 at 19:12
  • „The core element of functional harmony is the idea that each chord has a certain relationship to a tonal center, called the tonic“. I like this sentence a lot, but where is explained why the tonic is called the tonic? Maybe in English the meaning is clear, but I doubt about it. In German it‘s called the Tonika and this a Latin term and has no meaning if it is not explained etymologically. So it is just a name for the I the first degree ... Apr 25, 2019 at 20:22

Reimann is apparently the original source for tonic, subdominant, dominant definition of functional harmony...

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...that seems to be the basis of talking about 'functionality' on other levels. Like this introduction from Schoenberg...

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Those screen shots are from the Harvard Dictionary of Music and Structural Functions of Harmony.

Back to your question: "does Functional Harmony require that the Dominant to Tonic relationship be fulfilled and, if not, what are the boundaries of Functional Harmony?"

If you think like Schoenberg, it seems the answer is "yes" for "higher" forms.

But, I think a pattern like I-V-vi-IV fits in with his "popular music" example of a "mere interchange." I understand that to mean not strongly goal driven where a cadence is the goal. I imagine he would have called I-V-vi-IV - and other pop "chord progressions" primitive expressions of tonality because they don't have formal cadences, but they do express a tonality. So those chords are functioning to express a tonality, but they are not high level functional harmony.


Just to be clear, I'm not advocating this notion of 'functional' versus 'primitive' attitude. I just posted it as an example of how the term has been used.

Personally, I take the attitude that Reimann 'functional' or 'non-functional' simply means you can label music with Roman numeral analysis or not and nothing more. If music doesn't fit with Reimann's system, and is called 'non-functional' within that system, it means absolutely nothing about the quality of the music. 'Non-functional' doesn't necessarily mean 'bad', 'vague', or any other negative connotation. Most importantly music described as 'Reimann non-functional' does not mean that chords and harmony in such music aren't functioning in some other way! It doesn't even mean the music isn't tonal! You just need to use other analysis tools.

  • Isn‘t the question in reality: would the music be functional in the sense of functional harmony even if the theories of Rameau, Riemann, Weber, Maler didn‘t exist? ;) Apr 25, 2019 at 20:15
  • If you mean "functional in the sense of [Riemann] functional harmony...", I'm saying "no, not exactly" the music functions in ways that aren't exactly what Riemann conceived, at least as I understand his theory. That's my opinion. Apr 25, 2019 at 21:15

Functional Harmony isn't a very specific statement, but if I were to define Functional Harmony (as opposed to Modal Harmony, Atonal Harmony, and Nonfunctional Harmony, as you said), I'd give it a go something like this:

Functional Harmony is a style of harmonic analysis and practice in which chords, the basic units of harmony, are used in a way where the sequence of chords used may be understood as having a single effect, as opposed to being only analyzed by themselves. In Functional Harmony, the order of chords has meaning.

Pick at that definition as you will, but it's as good as I'm going to get without looking it up. Anyway, would pop progressions fit into this definition? I'd say you are somewhat right, in that Pop music tends away from that style where cadences are analysed, as pop tends not to think in terms of cadences, but rather in terms of groupings of about four chords.

But, does the order of chords have meaning? I'd argue yes. While it's true that almost any group of the four or so most often used pop chords will work, the order in which they appear matters (I-V-IV-vi wouldn't really work). So it's kind of ambiguous on whether pop music follows functional harmony.

One could try to define pop as functional harmony in that pop definitely doesn't have the characteristics of Atonal music, and pop tends not to really use the Ideas that Modal music does, so one could argue that pop therefore is functional. (Nonfunctional, as I understand, is just a term for music that is not functional, which I think includes the other two you listed)

Given that I can't provide an empirical answer, I hope I can bring new perspectives to this interesting argument, as this is a question that really stumped me. Great question!

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    We could certainly make arguments for things being tonal but not functional, no? I may be wrong in my thought process but I've often thought of Aeolian and Minor being easily separated based on whether or not the V chord is major or not, which doesn't really sound like it would align with your thought process on something being modal (I'm guessing you're thinking more so along the lines of minimalist modal music that generally hang on a single chord for most of the time but correct me if I'm wrong). Sep 17, 2018 at 15:46
  • "Tonal but not functional" Well, yes, that's true. But aren't things that are atonal by definition not functional? That's what I meant. And yes, I don't have a good understanding of modal music, you're right, but surely pop music can't be modal? (even if it uses a v chord instead of V) Or if it is, then what would you define "Modal" as?
    – user45266
    Sep 17, 2018 at 16:07
  • Right, Atonal music wouldn't be Functional. For all I know, you may have a better understanding of modal music, where I could just as easily be mistaken. How about pop music that's in Dorian or Mixolydian? I've seen plenty of those. Sep 17, 2018 at 16:10
  • Oh, you're right, there is some pop music in Dorian and some in Mixolydian. I guess my way would be to say that just because something uses a mode doesn't mean it's modal. And I definitely don't have a very solid understanding of modal music. Although I'm not opposed to saying that pop music in Dorian or Mixolydian is modal.
    – user45266
    Sep 17, 2018 at 16:15
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    Right, that's where I get mixed up. It's really nice to be able to discuss this without starting a flame war :)
    – user45266
    Sep 17, 2018 at 16:43

I reached out to one of my theory teachers from college and he responded with his thought process, so I thought I'd share:

"Interesting question! I think that pop and rock progressions often function differently, but that doesn't mean they're not functional. Think about the basic blues progression, where you have V fall to IV and then I. While that's not standard practice harmony, I believe we ARE hearing dominant and then subdominant functions, just in a different sequence than we're used to. Sometimes, especially in the more inventive Lennon/Radiohead style chord progs, functionality IS laid aside. But I generally think that diatonic progressions such as the one you list have to be understood as functional, even if the functions are somewhat stood upon their head."


I-V-vi is functional if we see it as an interrupted cadence. You can't frustrate a tendency that doesn't exist!

A more interesting question would be 'is I-♭VII-I functional?' What about I-♭VII-IV-I? We can find a 'functional' V of IV in the latter progression. We can just about twist ♭VII into a dominant substitute in the first one. Does this usefully describe the music, or just satisfy our need for labels?

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    ♭V11 I know what you meant, but someone may think 11th chord. Apr 25, 2019 at 16:08
  • @MichaelCurtis Fixed. If that's not what you meant, feel free to change it, Laurence Payne. +1
    – user45266
    Apr 25, 2019 at 16:42
  • @LaurencePayne Yeah, that was the correction. I agree with your point and think sometimes people misunderstand "functional" to mean "good harmony" or "non-functional" to mean "bad harmony." Apr 25, 2019 at 16:53

I'd like to give an answer that interprets functional analysis broadly, not as simply Riemann analysis, but as a way of understanding harmony by examining how chords "function" and flow into each other diachronically.

But first let me speak like a linguist. In English we have loanwords from Latin, like data. But they are not grammatically treated like Latin: most English speakers will say "The data shows" instead of "The data show" even though data, in Latin, is plural. A Latin speaker, studying English, might conclude that English "lacks" the grammar of plurality. But we know that that's not true; English has plurality, but English's sense of plurality is different from Latin's, and there's no law requiring that English obey Latin grammar when English incorporates Latin words.

A responsible linguist, then, won't be beholden to the idea that "data is plural, so if it's used as a singular, something is wrong." Instead, linguists have to make sense of the language as it is. This is called descriptivism.

In the same way, functional analysis, as practiced by modern theorists, seeks to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. In Classical music, V chords typically cadence to I chords and so on in the way you've pointed out, and if you wanted to teach someone to write Classical music, you could prescribe that chords should follow those functions.

But pop is not Classical music. Even as pop music clearly borrows many Classical harmonic concepts (like building triads on each degree of the major scale), pop has a unique harmonic grammar. Pop harmonies don't necessarily conform to Classical notions of functionality, but this doesn't mean they aren't functional—clearly each chord has a role or function to play in its context!

  • I like your approach here, however, I would point out that scientists and the like do tend to treat data as a plural word and similarly, I would expect music theorists, in a formal conversation, to conform to the actual meanings of these words, which is essentially what is in dispute. My thought is generally that if the chords don't really demonstrate the Classical functions, it makes more sense to think of them as Modal in nature. For instance, this standard pop progression could be thought of as being in Ionian instead of Major. Apr 26, 2019 at 16:19
  • There are categories beyond "modal" and "(Classically) functional." There is clearly a sense of flow to the I V vi IV progression (even though it lacks Classically functional root movement) that isn't found in a truly modal piece like "So What." Perhaps you could argue (although I personally wouldn't) for positioning functional vs. modal as opposite ends of a spectrum. Then Classical music would be near-ideally "functional" while Gregorian chant would be near-ideally modal. But to me this model trades away too much accuracy for the sake of simplicity.
    – Max
    Apr 26, 2019 at 20:54

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