Do you know of any alternative (to functional) descriptive theories of harmony or attempts at creating them?

By that I mean attempts to explain both functional and non-functional harmonies in a single and coherent way, focusing for example on voice leading and not function or any other approach.

To try to explain better as it indeed might sound confusing: in today's music we come across progressions that are not easy to explain using functional harmony so we invented this term non-functional harmony that seems to be just a way of saying: the established theory doesn't really handle this case very well. Hence the question: is there any research or attempts to create more unified theory of why certain chord progressions sound good and others don't.

And I don't really mean microtonal or serial theories but attempts at describing all existing practice of western harmony based on 12-tone scale in a different way.

  • Your question is a little confusing, can you please explain it a little better please?
    – user57845
    Feb 22, 2019 at 15:15
  • fair point. I've edited the question.
    – Jarek.D
    Feb 22, 2019 at 15:29
  • 3
    Hindemith's Craft of Musical Composition Book 1 expounds his theories on analysis which are meant to expand tonal analysis to include more or less all possible chord constructions and melodic contours. I had also seen someone expand his work with their own called "Density Degree Theory," but the page it used to be on is now defunct, it appears: oneonta.edu/faculty/legnamo/theorist/density/density.html
    – LSM07
    Feb 22, 2019 at 15:50
  • 1
    Thanks @LSM07 this is exactly the type of examples I'm looking for. Found more here: scribd.com/document/287087067/…
    – Jarek.D
    Feb 22, 2019 at 15:57
  • You mean like this? beepbox.co/… Or am I failing to understand your question due to my lack of understanding?(WIP recreation of Sealed Vessel by Christopher Larkin, Composer of Hollow Knight soundtrack)
    – user57845
    Feb 22, 2019 at 16:26

1 Answer 1


Dmitri Tymoczko's books on geometric harmony are one attempt. They are an extension of neo-Riemannian harmony based on the Tonnetz. (Editorial: I found these more useful for laying out accordion buttons than for explaining tonal or other relations.) Older (pre-1800) works on figured bass try to explain things from a non-functional viewpoint; they suffer from not being updated for the last 200 years or so.

The Jazz Harmony stuff does try to explain jazz practice although much of jazz can be explained with ordinary harmony.

Much of Common Practice Period harmony is a taxonomy of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi, etc. The neo-Riemannians try to incorporate later practice (Wagner, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Ravel etc.) in an expanded taxonomy. Harmony is taxonomy, not biochemistry and explains what people did, not what they should have done or should do in the future.

Modern books on harmony (from Frank Shepard to Robert Gauldin) do explain much more than just functional harmony. Voice leading is probably more important than function in most cases anyway.Felix Salzer's Counterpoint in Composition covers voice leading rather well.

  • Thanks for all the recommendations. Good point about harmony as taxonomy but that's just the way it came to be and I suppose I was trying to find out if there's any work trying to connect the dots between the practice of harmony and more universal grounding like the physical reality of sound.
    – Jarek.D
    Feb 25, 2019 at 14:38
  • @Jarek.D Harmony is tightly related to the physical reality of sound, its harmonics, obertones and frequency spectrum. And there of course are correspondencies between sound wave characteristics and particular laws in musical harmony, for example you can see a very noticeable difference between waveforms of a major and minor chord. However there is another important player in this game -- our brain. How and why does it perceive certain sounds in a particular way and why various sound progressions cause various effects is another topic. There is some material on this, however.
    – noncom
    Jun 20, 2021 at 21:48

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