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My gut feeling is the half-diminished chord is more commonly found as iiø7 in minor than viiø7 in major.

In major I think the vii chord is most commonly a plain diminished triad or - if it's a seventh chord - viio7 fully diminished.

I have nothing quantitative to back this notion up.

When I play a half-diminished it just sounds to my ears like a minor key chord or as a borrowed chord in major (like a borrowed iiø7 using the lowerd ^6.) I suppose I'm saying I hear the half-diminished chord as typically a subdominant rather than an extension of a dominant chord.

The question is not whether viiø7 is usable in major. Of course it is. But, is the minor key chord more common than the major key chord.

Can anyone confirm one way or the other?

  • I've come across it more in pieces written in major keys, if that's what you mean. Of course, somewhere near that point, the pieces could have modulated temporarily into the relative minor. Sometimes it's difficult to decide. – Tim Mar 22 at 14:37
  • I've downvoted for a couple reasons, but you probably have answers to these, so I wanted to post a comment. I think it would help to narrow in on a very specific subgenre of music, because a quantitative analysis of all music isn't feasible. The only way I can envision to answer the question as currently written is to explain a difference in harmonic function (one does exist) which would make one less used, but even that would be a stretch since harmonic function doesn't imply frequency. The other thing I don't understand just yet is the motivation/usefuless in this distinction. – jdjazz Mar 22 at 16:16
  • I totally get asking for an answer that relies on, e.g., harmonic function, but it sounds like you're specifically looking for a quantitative analysis. For that, I think a narrower scope is important for feasibility. – jdjazz Mar 22 at 16:17
  • @jdjazz, common practice harmony. I updated my question. A statistical study would be awesome but anecdotes from anyone with deep knowledge of common practice would be helpful too. I ask the question, because I think understanding the conventions of the style is important. – Michael Curtis Mar 22 at 16:21
  • @Tim, I was thinking of the prevailing key, so major/minor relative to wherever the music may modulate. – Michael Curtis Mar 22 at 16:27
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I don’t know if this is satisfactory, because it’s just a personal sense. I’m fairly certain that there is no serious scholarship seeking to simply quantify the prevalence of diatonic harmonies, although I could be wrong. I’m honestly not sure that it’s even feasible. I have read many textbooks and scholarly articles, and have studied a metric crap-ton of common-practice music, but it’s still just a gut sense. Anyway:

I suspect first of all that any diatonic variety of ii is more common than any variety of diatonic vii°. ii is the most common and powerful diatonic pre-dominant function harmony, while vii is the less common and less powerful dominant function harmony. I can think of very few phrases of music that don’t have ii in them, but I can think of plenty of entire sections of music that never see vii at all.

On top of that, after V7, ii7 and iiø7 are the most common chords to have sevenths added to them. Admittedly, ii chords place a distant second place, but I’m all but certain that beat out vii handily. The most common usage of vii I’ve seen (outside of modulatory passages of course) are vii°6, and that only rarely has a seventh added to it.

Finally—on top of those two limiting factors—we have the fact that even when composers have the opportunity to use viiø7, they are a pretty likely to go ahead and fully diminish it (to the point that vii°7 in Major is so common that it’s barely even considered to be chromaticism), whereas I’ve never seen that done with ii without it being an applied dominant of the relative major.

So: 1) pretty sure ii is already more common than vii, 2) pretty sure ii chords are more likely to have sevenths added to them and, 3) even when vii does have the seventh, there’s a whole extra option that throw the stats off even more.

I’d be very surprised to be found wrong on this, but I’d love to see the study if someone can figure out a way to make it viable.

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(This is a bit too long for a comment, so provided as an answer.)

One thing to remember is that chords arose out of the scales/modes and the preference of their combinations and dissonances and not the other way around. The voice leading worked out over time this way to provide the standard chords and progressions we all know like the back of our hands now. As a result, tonal harmony generally works out as a cycle progression of fourths upward/fifths downward, reflected in the viiø7 -> I (major) resolution being almost just as easily a V9 -> I (major) resolution with a more "solid", i.e. preferred, bass movement (a fifth down/fourth up) from a contrapuntal and voice leading standpoint. You would practically never see a piece from the Common Practice Period ending with a viiø7 -> I or viio7 -> I/i (major OR minor) cadence because it would break too many aesthetic rules. Hearing the separation between the two (major and minor mode) does take some time, however, and I can personally vouch that it took me years to really not hear things always gravitating towards a major/Ionian-mode bias (even with the Lydian mode, it took me a long time to not hear it as a IV chord to a tonic that wasn't actually there).

  • I can sort of follow what you wrote. It does make me see that viiø7 would be an extension of the dominant chord, whereas iiø7 is subdominant chord. I suppose I'm saying I hear the half-diminished chord as a subdominant. Anyway, I'm looking for something that might quantify its typical use. – Michael Curtis Mar 22 at 15:25
  • FWIW, I play half-diminished and other chords with chromatic halfstep movements as well as with functional harmony. So I do hear it in a major/minor context and non-functional context. – Michael Curtis Mar 22 at 15:49
  • Can you explain a bit what you mean by "quantify"? – LSM07 Mar 22 at 16:10
  • "quantify"... something like this davidtemperley.com/kp-stats, an actual statistical tabulation of harmony over a large collection of works. Or... if someone has really deep knowledge of common practice music personal anecdotes are informative too. – Michael Curtis Mar 22 at 16:18

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