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29: Diatonic Function Analysis

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Lesson 29: Diatonic Function Analysis

You learned the diatonic chord functionstonic, subdominant, and dominant—in Lesson 27: Tonic Function and Lesson 28: Subdominant & Dominant. Now, to help you use them, 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 26: 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 add diatonic function analysis to your Things to Practice list (Lesson 2: Teaching Yourself); 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: Teaching Yourself
3: Pitch & Keyboard
4: Pitch Names
5: Letters Game
6: Sharps & Flats
7: Half-Steps
8: Whole-Steps
9: Steps Game
10: Scales
11: Major Scale 1-2-3
12: Major 1-2-3 Games
13: Major Scale 1-5
14: Major 1-5 Games
15: Chords: Major Triads
16: Major Triad Games
17: Minor Triads
18: Minor Triad Games
19: Major Scale 1-8
20: Major Scale Games
21: Scales Above 8
22: What Next
23: Keys
24: Roman Numeral Chords
25: Diatonic Triads
26: Using Diatonics
27: Tonic Function
28: Subdominant & Dominant
29: Diatonic Function Analysis
30: 7th Chords
31: 7ths Games
32: Treble Staff
33: Treble Staff Game
34: Melody: Chord Tones
35: Pitch & Frequency

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