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26: Diatonic Function Analysis

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Lesson 26: 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 25: 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 23: 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. Here are the tension levels, from "highest tension" to lowest:

D (Dominant): Highest tension; "really wants to" return to Tonic.
SD (Subdominant): Not at rest. Often used to move away from Tonic; often moves to Dominant.
(T) (substitute Tonic): Feels "semi" at rest.
T (Tonic): Feels at rest.

The way a chord progression moves among the tension levels creates that progression's tension story. Here's our example progression (C → Dm → Em → F → G → C) 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.



1: Introduction
2: Practicing Songwriting
3: Pitch Names
4: Letters Game
5: Sharps & Flats
6: Half-Steps & Whole-Steps
7: Steps Game
8: Scales
9: Major Scale 1-2-3
10: Major 1-2-3 Games
11: Major Scale 1-5
12: Major 1-5 Games
13: Chords: Major Triads
14: Major Triad Games
15: Minor Triads
16: Minor Triad Games
17: Major Scale 1-8
18: Major Scale Games
19: Keys
20: Roman Numeral Chords
21: Scales Above 8
22: Diatonic Triads
23: Using Diatonics
24: Tonic Function
25: Subdominant & Dominant
26: Diatonic Function Analysis
27: Natural Minor Scale
28: Natural Minor Games
29: Minor Key Triads
30: 7th Chords
31: 7ths Games
32: Suspended-4th Chords
33: Time: Beats & Measures
34: Starting a Song: Hook Chords
35: Melody: Chord Tones
36: Treble Staff
37: Treble Staff Game
38: Note Lengths
39: Tied & Dotted Notes
40: Rhythm: Rests
41: Key Signatures
42: Syncopation
43: Pentatonic Scales
44: Hook Melodies
45: Hook to Chorus: Rolling Stone
46: Melody Rhythm: Rolling Stone
47: Non-Root-Bass Chords
48: Embellishing Tones
49: Diatonic 7ths
50: Pitch & Frequency

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