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I have an easy time telling the tonic in the chord progression but sometimes I am not sure of the other chords and what their "function" is in the progression and am trying to learn more about this. I have a specific progression in my mind which goes Em, Bm, D, A, Em, Bm, C, C. This verse repeats again but the second time, the second C becomes D and the chorus then goes to a standard I V vi IV progression in G. If you listen to this progression would you say that the C chord at the end of the 1st phrase is acting as a subdominant or dominant chord? Also is it true that all the chords in this progression either function as a dominant or subdominant except for the tonic chord? What then would the Bm chord function as?

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When the term "functional" is used I think of the "functional harmony" meaning about pre-dominant, dominant, and tonic levels of harmony where harmony that is functional flows from pre-dominants, to dominants, to tonics.

When a progression like I V vi IV is considered we have either tonic to dominant to pre-dominant or if considering the progression repeats and looking at the harmony over the barline I V vi IV | I V... we have pre-dominant to tonic to dominant. Either way we don't have the syntax of functional harmony.

...If you listen to this progression would you say that the C chord at the end of the 1st phrase is acting as a subdominant or dominant chord?

It may seem picky but subdominant is really just a label for the position in the scale. In terms of harmonic function it is called pre-dominant.

It may seem a glib response, but if the C (IV) in the chorus isn't acting functionally as a pre-dominant, why bother considering that function in the verse? Harmony is not always functional.

But let's try to view it in a functional light:

Em, Bm, D, A, Em, Bm, C, C
Em, Bm, D, A, Em, Bm, C, D

If the "key" is G major...

vi iii V V/V vi iii IV IV
vi iii V V/V vi iii IV V

...you can reduce it by see the descending 4th pairs (vi iii & V V/V`) and removing the second chord of the pairs...

vi V vi IV 
vi V vi IV V

...you could further reduce it to just the tonal chords...

V IV 
V IV V

...the verse could be seen as an elaboration around the dominant V.

From this perspective C (IV) is a pre-dominant and D (V) is a dominant.

But is the music really functional? Is it really in the key of G major?

To me the "axis of awesome" progression alone is not functional harmony. I suppose it could be viewed as some kind of tonic elaboration in a larger functional design. In that case, this harmony going from the verse to chorus, could be describe as an elaboration of...

IV V | I

...and that's functional!

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The way I see, the first part of the verse sounds a lot like E Dorian, because of the A at the end, which pulls back to Em, that is the tonal center here. So talking about functions in this part doesn't make much sense. It's modal, not functional afterall.

When the C comes at the end of the second part of the verse, it suggests that the tonality is now E minor, not Dorian anymore. Being the VIb degree of E minor, this C would be called a Submediant. It is neither a dominant or subdominant.

Also is it true that all the chords in this progression either function as a dominant or subdominant except for the tonic chord?

About this, let's make it clear what it means to be dominant, subdominant or tonic. Traditionally, every degree of the scale has a name for it's function. First degree is tonic, fourth degree is subdominant, and fifth degree is dominant.

However, there are other chords that function in a similar way to these in chord progressions, therefore we can extend these names to the chords that function similarly. For example, ii is equivalent to IV in a ii V I / IV V I cadence. Actually ii7 even contains all the notes of IV. So you could say that is has also a subdominant function. In general, I and vi are tonics, ii and IV are subdominants, V and vii° are dominants.

In the second part of the verse, in E minor, Bm would then be a dominant, and C the submediant. In the second repetition, when you do C D to enter the chorus, I would say it already sounds like G major, and you could say that C is subdominant and D is dominant.

In the chorus, G is tonic, D is dominant, Em is tonic (because it's the relative degree of G major, therefore both scales have the same notes, therefore kind of feels like a tonal center too), C is subdominant.


PS: Did this make sense?? If some of this is bullshit please correct me!

  • I also saw it as you did even though my music book notates the piece in G. I see the first part as E dorian because when that C chord comes it almost feels like it is out of the key. Ok so if the C chord is the VIb chord you say it is the submediant but doesn't the C still function as it does in G major? So if we were in G major it would be the IV chord right and then it would be subdominant? – armani Jun 14 at 19:43
  • @armani I thought about that too, but I am not sure at all! – coconochao Jun 17 at 16:24
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Functions are relative to the context at each point, and in your example, there are modulation-like characteristics, which change the harmonic context throughout the progression. Even if you could categorize different harmonic moments as e.g. "subdominant" doesn't mean that they're necessarily subdominants in the same sense. They might function as subdominants relative to a different tonic. And there may be multiple plausible interpretations at the same time.

The beginning of your example toys with the question, "is the tonal center in Em or Bm". But when the C chord comes, the "Bm might be tonic" possibility fades away. Try replacing the A major chord with an A minor - it reduces the ambiguity and makes it perhaps slightly less interesting. YMMV of course. At each point, try soloing different melody lines and see how the chord changes affect your possibilities and feeling of which note can easily be believed to be the tonic.

The harmonic context is not static, it's very elastic and moves around as it's poked with chords and notes, like this guy: harmonic context analogy animation

Where is he standing, where is his "pivot point"?

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