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Where Have All the V Chords Gone? The Decline of ‘Functional’ Harmony in Pop

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So there I was, doing research on topics such as “summer 2017 songwriting trends,” when it hit me. You guys, this is getting ridiculous — where did all the functional harmony go? I’m talking about the Music Theory 101, first-day-of-class stuff that we used to see everywhere: dominants, pre-dominants, tonics, authentic cadences — in other words, functions.

Where’d they all go?

Basically, the three essential functions in tonal harmony are the Predominant, most often a two(ii) or four(IV) chord; then the Dominant, almost always a five(V) chord; and then the Tonic, always the one chord(I). In the key of C major, that’d be a Dm or F, then a G, then a C chord, respectively. This chord change, and its variants, is supposed to be the most common and “correct” thing that happens in music.

Elvis and Beethoven would both agree.

Here’s Elvis singing “All Shook Up” — just a whole bunch of one(I) chords, then bam, function: IV – V – I.

Beethoven only needs two of the essential functions to start his “Minuet in G.” Just I – V – I or tonic – dominant – tonic.

Now, back to the issue at hand. Like I said, I was surfing through Google search results for “summertime hits of 2017″ and the like, cross-referencing them for duplicates, and literally, the first six songs I found had none — not even a whiff of any of these textbook-essential functions.

Pop music has officially entered the age of “post-functional.” Or something.

Exhibit A:

Drake’s song “Passionfruit” starts out with some syncopated arpeggios — none of which are even triads, so there’s your first functional harmony torpedo right there — and even if you cheat and label them by their implied triads, i – iv – v chords, it’s still not functioning tonally. That’s because these are modal chords, and according to Music Theory 101, modal chords don’t “function,” per se, they meander — like a lost monk chanting in the woods.

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Implied chords create implied moods. Learn how to harness the power of moody music using nothing but simple harmonic tricks in our course, Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords.

Exhibit B:

Next came Kendrick Lamar’s “Loyalty,” which has a natural minor chord progression of ♭VI – v – i — not classically functional.

His other song on all the lists, “Humble,” uses the same dang motif, but without the chords, so it’s just the chord roots, ♭6, 5, and 1. These “5-1” scale notes are as close as we get to V – I functioning chords. Incidentally, this piano riff can also be heard in a Phrygian tonality as ♭2, 1, 4.

It’s kind of like the famous rabbit-duck illusion where your brain is capable of seeing both a rabbit and a duck in the same image. How is this possible in music? Because the less tonal information you have, the harder it is to be sure where the tonal center is, so your brain starts filling in the gaps with tonal information from your musical preferences and culture. Like, what if you’d never heard a song in natural minor before but those Phrygian bunnies started hopping all around your yard, like, every morning?

What if you’d never seen a duck before? You’d see the rabbit.

Exhibit C:

You’ll never believe this, but the next song, Calvin Harris’s “Slide” (feat. Frank Ocean and Migos), started with that same bVI – v – i progression, later using an even less functional iv – v – bVI progression. No major V chords = no leading tones = no functional cadences = no essential functions.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “How to Add Bittersweet Emotion to Your Chords with 7ths”

Exhibit D:

In “Shape of You,” Ed Sheeran uses a i – iv – bVI – bVII progression… and has red hair. Red hair is also not tonally functional.

Exhibit E:

Lastly, Lorde. Thank you, Lorde — you at least have a major V in your chord progressions for “Green Light,” which are vi – I – IV, IV – vi – V and bVII – IV – I. But, wait, does this major V resolve, functionally, to its tonic one(I) chord?

Nope, sorry, it doesn’t. It resolves about as well as her feelings for this jerk she’s singing about. Oh well, at least we have a “plagal cadence” in there (IV – I), which is kind of functional, I guess.

I mean, I don’t even know what that word should mean anymore or what “functional” is, should, or shouldn’t be.

What Now? Where Do We Go from Here?

By definition, “functional” is a word that means something works, it does stuff. And yes, predominant-dominant-tonic has done a lot of stuff throughout the ages! But it doesn’t do “all the stuff” — not anymore at least. All of this music above, even without “essential functions,” still actually works. Because if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be on multiple “best of the summer” lists.

So why am I pointing all of this out (besides nana-nana-booing my old music school’s curriculum and thinking I’m better than theorists who’ve been dead a hundred years)? I want to scrap, to do away with, the word function altogether.

It’s gotten to the point where it’s just confusing people. We need different words to express what we mean.

How about speaking purely in terms of “resolving” or “leading” in honor of the “leading tone,” which is a note all dominant function chords have. And while none of the music above has a leading tone that leads anywhere, why does music have to lead anywhere?

That’s the danger of continuing to use the word “function.” Isn’t it okay if music meanders, roams, and drifts, eschewing any solid dominant-tonic, or away-home, leading-resolving movement? I mean, Netflix and chill, it’s a crappy job market out there for millennials, I don’t want my music to resolve, to “go home.” Half my friends are living in their parents’ basements. Going home sucks.

There’s still plenty of classically, tonally, or essentially functional music out there, as this guy proves in everyone’s favorite “Pachelbel Rant.”

+ Read more on Flypaper: Speaking of “Pachelbel’s Canon,” brush up on your knowledge of canons and rounds and how to compose them with this useful digression.

It’s not that music doesn’t “function” anymore, it’s just that music functions differently than it used to. There’s a lot more roaming and drifting, and it works just fine, thank you. It’s just that the terms haven’t kept up.

So, let’s ditch the word “functions” for words like “resolves,” “leads,” or “roams.” If we could, maybe our music jargon could be more… functional?

Explore Soundfly’s growing array of Mainstage composition courses that feature personal support and mentorship from an experienced professional in the field, such as Introduction to the Composer’s Craft, Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords, Orchestration for Strings, and more! And because you’re a supporting member of the Flypaper community, we’d like to offer you 40% off of the next round of courses (starting September 6) with the exclusive code EARLYBIRD40 (*code valid until Aug. 16 at midnight!).

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Dean Olivet
Dean Olivet

Dean Olivet received a Music BA in Duluth, MN, but he’s more proud of his French Horn Trophy, Jug Band Trophy, and his plaque that reads "Best Musical Act at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival." He has fun putting out recordings of his music, but these days he finds making videos about other people's music to be just as fun. He keeps a record of his guitar curriculum online for a quick reference when he spaces out and can’t think of anything to teach his students.

  • Ethan Hein

    Philip Tagg proposes describing chord functions in music like this in terms of metrical position. It’s a super useful concept. http://www.ethanhein.com/wp/2017/philip-taggs-everyday-tonality/

    • Dean

      Ethan Hein! Thanks for the link can’t wait to read, and why haven’t I heard of Philip Tag yet? I swear you are personally responsible for like 30% of the music things I have learned or thought about since college. Thanks!

  • Dragos Manea

    Your dilemma has a simpler answer: those bad example of people don’t know how to make music or they make that stuff to be liked by their fans. Most likely they started “to make music” by playing with an audio software, not by playing an instrument or to read the very basic fundamentals of the music theory.

    • Jeremy Eikam

      Or, maybe a different way of saying this is that since these musicians took a different r

      • Dragos Manea

        Some of their “tunes” are better described not as music, but as lyrics with sound (not music) accompaniment. Most of them are not able to sing their own song twice the same way (you can check them when they are live), let alone that they are dissonant most of the time and are not able to keep the pitch of their own musical notes at a constant level (they don’t even perceive the issue). If the sound engineer won’t post-process their recordings they would be out of business. I’m only an amateur musician in my spare time, I’m not a professional, so I’m not criticize them because I’m better or full of myself, but their lack of respect for their public is obvious for me.

  • Giorgio Prager

    Excellent piece (and I even enjoyed the Drake tune despite my better judgement) But I’m not sure I can go along with “why does music have to lead anywhere?” It doesn’t *have to*, just like the train I get on doesn’t *have to* make it to New York, it can just slide along the track for a few miles like an excursion train, but it’s more useful if it reaches its destination 🙂 Also – I may be totally wrong on this – intuition tells me that the lV – V – I stuff has a much longer shelf life

  • Pingback: Il nuovo Pop se ne frega della teoria musicale | RadioBue.it()

  • Michael

    When you’re not a musician and you make a music-like consumable for people who have no taste in music, functional harmony becomes completely irrelevant. A great number of jazz musicians have composed a wealth of music that has compelling harmonic motion which doesn’t rely on ii-V’s or implied ii-V’s but they’re, you know, musicians.

  • Lyre Lyre

    Seems to me that you’re doing a lot of heavy lifting to shore up a leaky premise. The Sheeran progression can easily be interpreted as a I-II-IV-V sequence where the relative minor tonic is substituted for the I. It takes no bootstrapping to hear the F chord in the Lordes tune as a V chord, with the Gm again serving as a substitute for the relative major tonic. Even if we call both of those tunes modal natural minor progressions, I don’t see it as endangering the bedrock of Western Harmonic thought ( any more than it has been to
    date) As for some of the other tunes, I’m
    not necessarily hearing any degree of harmonic articulation that justifies analysis. As I tell my students, don’t put more effort into analyzing a piece of music than the composer put into
    writing it.

  • Jimmy Miller

    Gee, how horrible that musicians are trying to do something other than a stock V-I resolution that’s been used since time began. They should stop striving to create new moods and new tension/resolutions and just do the same old same old. Snore snore snore.

  • Sasu

    The v-i comes from classical music and in general western european music, but modern pop music is heavily influenced by modal music, mostly with african roots. This happened when pop music became rap and hiphop performed by black american people in the 2000s. Modal music likes to use neighbouring scale steps and the only dominant it would use is the bVII-I modal dominant which doesn’t have half step leading notes.

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