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28: Diatonic Function Analysis

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Lesson 28: Diatonic Function Analysis

This lesson teaches how to understand the diatonic chords in "real" songs.

Before taking this lesson, you should know: the diatonic chord functions (Lesson 27: Subdominant & Dominant).

To learn to use the diatonic chord functions (tonic, subdominant, and dominant), you should study them in real songs. This is called diatonic function analysis.

Let's do an example. Here's a short chord progression in the key of C major (it's actually a simplified phrase from Bob Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone):

C  Dm   Em  F   G  C  

First, add Roman numeral symbols (from Lesson 25: Using Diatonics):

C  Dm   Em  F   G  C  

Next, we'll add diatonic function symbols. We'll use these symbols:

T = Tonic
(T)= "substitute" Tonic
SD = Subdominant
D = Dominant

Here's the example with the diatonic functions added:

Functions: TSD (T) SD  DT
Roman symbols:   IIImIIImIV VI
Actual chords: C  Dm  Em  F   G  C  

Tension Levels

The diatonic functions have different tension levels, which means how at rest, or not at rest, that function feels. The tension levels range from the no-tension level, tonic (T), which sounds at rest, to the highest tension level, dominant (D), which "really wants to" return to the tonic. The way a chord progression moves between different tension levels creates that progression's tension story. Here's our example again, displayed as a tension-level graph so you can see the tension story's shape:

  C  Dm  Em   F  G  C  
  D V
  SD     IIm IV
  (T) IIIm
  T   I I

Following the Roman symbols above from left to right, we can see that this example's basic tension story is:
  1. Starts at rest, on I
  2. Climbs (with a bit of wandering) to high tension (the V)
  3. Drops back to rest (the last I)

This particular story/shape is very, very common, but there are lots of variations and alternatives. To develop a feel for the effects of different tension stories, you should include diatonic function analysis when you're analyzing songs (see Lesson 2: Practicing Songwriting). Make tension-level graphs for lots of different songs, make up tension stories from the graphs, and decide for yourself what you think the musical effects of different tension stories are.

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1: Introduction
2: Practicing Songwriting
3: Pitch Names
4: Letters Game
5: Sharps & Flats
6: Half-Steps
7: Whole-Steps
8: Steps Game
9: Scales
10: Major Scale 1-2-3
11: Major 1-2-3 Games
12: Major Scale 1-5
13: Major 1-5 Games
14: Chords: Major Triads
15: Major Triad Games
16: Minor Triads
17: Minor Triad Games
18: Major Scale 1-8
19: Major Scale Games
20: Scales Above 8
21: What Next
22: Keys
23: Roman Numeral Chords
24: Diatonic Triads
25: Using Diatonics
26: Tonic Function
27: Subdominant & Dominant
28: Diatonic Function Analysis
29: 7th Chords
30: 7ths Games
31: Treble Staff
32: Treble Staff Game
33: Time: Beats & Measures
34: Note Lengths
35: Melody: Chord Tones
36: Pitch & Frequency

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