I play ambient music and my approach on creating chord lines is simple, just try to stick on the key and if I want to change the key then make it subtle.

But today I tried to create harmony lines which doesn't have a center key, just using enharmonic chords.

For example Chords: D -> F#m -> A -> C#m -> C#

Notes: DF#A -> F#AC# -> AC#E -> C#EG# -> C#FG#...And so on, it can be written forever. It sound good in my ambient context at least, because my role is to create space and not to show way (from A to B), but I want to know if I do something which has a name or theory behind it.

Can music be written not by functionality (for instance: I-IV-V), but only just the motion of the notes (as my line)?

I searched but I didn't find any written/spoken material about this topic.

It's very interesting and I want to know more about this approach.

  • Well, that sort of does have a key. It's just not certain exactly what key it is. It could be D minor or F major or A minor or C major or G minor or Bb major. If you repeat that pattern of a Dm chord and then an F major chord and back and forth, then it will sound like a chord progression in the key of D minor. Aside from all of that, this question is a bit broad. The question really needs a complete explanation of keys and chords and how they work, and that's a lot for a Stack Exchange answer. Commented Feb 25, 2019 at 19:12
  • You speak about harmony lines. I assume you play the chords in root position or at least the root tone in the bass.line. But it would be interesting what line you play in the upper voices as soprano and alto ? Commented Feb 25, 2019 at 20:31
  • J. S. Bach. He was a classical guy who sort of made writing contrapuntally; in coordinated melodies rather than chords. His music still has harmony, but it's laid out horizontally rather than vertically. And he's not the only person to do this, not by a long shot.
    – user45266
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 18:20

5 Answers 5


You do not have to analyze music using Roman numeral analysis.

Some music - Impressionism like Debussy - does not fit neatly into Roman numeral analysis.

Two common harmonic devices that often don't fit Roman numeral analysis are:

  • chromatic mediants
  • chord planing.

A chromatic mediant example would be like D minor to Bb minor. The Roman numeral analysis would be bvi but the important thing is that isn't one of the usual chords in minor. You can read more about chromatic mediants at Wikipedia.

Chord planing is when you use one chord type and just move it in parallel fashion. In your example C# major to D is a kind of planing, but usually you would have the parallel motion move more than just one step. When the motion involves only two chords by a halfstep as in your example you might describe it as a kind of appoggiatura chord.

Back to your example: D F#m A C#m C#

All but the last C# major fit into the key signature for A major where the first four chords would be A: IV vi I iii.

But then some might think it clever to say it fits into F# minor as F#m: VI i III v V

The problem with both - or any other attempt to label "the key" - is the harmony doesn't do anything to actually confirm a key. Specifically there isn't a cadence.

I think the important thing about the progression is that it moves mostly by ascending thirds. In the tonal major/minor key system that is a weak progression. By "weak" it really means not a strong way to define a clear key. It doesn't mean bad harmony. This kind of harmony can have a very gentle flowing feel that would not be found in music like Haydn's, but would seem to work well with ambient.

You might think of this kind of harmony as anti-cadential because it seems to avoid cadential patterns. But if you consider that a cadence functions to stop the flow of the music, it makes sense to take an anti-cadential direction in ambient music where you want the music to sort of float endlessly.

It may help to think in terms of diatonic harmony versus being in a key. You can select chords from a key signature like A major without formally being in the key of A. You might look into modern modal music or pan-diatonicism to get an idea of how that can work.

I sense you are already on the right track. You don't need to formally define a key. You do not need to approach harmony with only Roman numeral analysis. Try reading up on the modernists of the 20th century like Debussy, Ravel, Bartok, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Poulenc, Milhaud, etc. Stylistically some of that music is brutal and not at all like ambient, but it will give you a whole new set of analytically terminology to use when approaching your own music.


You're describing chords that are created not by reference to an overarching tonic, but that are created by linear motion and voice leading. In your sample chords, notice that each chord has two tones in common with the prior chord, and the other voice moved by step.

This is a common practice beginning in the nineteenth century. One really common example for music students is Chopin's E-minor Prelude:

enter image description here

By the time you reach the third measure, the chords quit making sense in E minor, and a Roman-numeral analysis is utterly nonsensical. But understanding the chords as byproducts of voice leading and linear motion suddenly clarifies what Chopin is doing.


Can music be written not by functionality (for instance: I-IV-V), but only just the motion of the notes (as my line)?

Yes, music can be written in a wide variety of ways, and functional harmony is just one. As Todd Wilcox pointed out in his comment, a full explanation of keys, chords, and the various ways of moving between them is outside the scope of this forum.

What you are doing could be described as a type of "process music" - that is, you are coming up with a process for composition and allowing that process to play out. In your case, you are moving through chords by allowing one voice to move step-wise. Some other terms you may want to research are "non-functional harmony" and "voice-leading."

Your process also sounds a bit like "Neo-Reimannian Theory," which is very complicated, but this video does a good job of trying to explain it:


I play ambient music and my approach on creating chord lines is simple, just try to stick on the key

In some ways, I might think that would be the least promising approach to creating ambient music!

Using chords diatonic to a key is likely to create typical tensions and resolutions that will grab listeners' attention and give the music a sense of driving forward. Very often, of course, that's what you want - except for when making ambient music!

(I do recognise that there are different styles within ambient, and that statement may be more applicable to some of those subgenres than others - and I don't mean to assume that you've been unsuccessful!)

As you've mentioned "just the motion of the notes", one approach you might want to look at is polyphony - a type of texture arising from simultaneous melodic lines. It's actually an older tradition than that of thinking in terms of block chords.

It's also very common for ambient music to be based more or less around a single chord for a whole piece, perhaps just moving the odd note here and there to create variations on the tonality.

Many ambient pieces use delay and reverb to cause interesting evolving concords and discords which wouldn't be apparent from looking at a score of the 'played' notes.

Another common ambient technique is to explore the line between timbre and harmony, and the way that the motion of the harmonics in a sustained note can create changes in the quality of the sonority produced. Or to put it another way - hold down a couple of notes and muck around with the knobs on the synth!

  • I usually skip the third note (making the chord non-minor/major) and use embelishments like the 9th. And of course I use reverb and delay and pedal point. Thanks the article, I will dig into it ^^
    – Gery
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 9:14
  • @Gery yep, open fifths are great for adding a bit of harmonic complexity without starting to make the harmony seem functional. Suspended chords (sus2) and static extended chords (like minor ninth) can be great for this too. Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 11:04
  • @Gery oh and... have a listen to Tallis' Spem in alium for a nice bit of polyphony. Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 11:07
  • @Gery and to think there were those who thought polyphony 'evil' (at least according to that Wiki article! :) Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 12:11

The change of the last 2 chords is the change between the relative chords C#m - C#. The preceding prgogression could be considered as a chain of 4 third related chords round the center of A:

IV - vi - I - iii - (V)

This is not so usual then the opposite direction:

iii - I - vi - IV

If you did continue the principle of third relation the progression would be:

D -> F#m -> A -> C#m -> E -> G#mb5 -> Bm -> D

Is this what you mean?

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