Harmonic function is a fundamental concept in music theory that is essential for understanding how chords and melodies work together. In this article, we will explore what harmonic function is, how it works, and some common examples of its use in music.

What Is Harmonic Function?

Harmonic function refers to the role that a particular chord plays within a musical key. In other words, each chord has a specific function within the larger harmonic structure of a piece of music.

The Three Main Functions

There are three main harmonic functions: tonic, dominant, and subdominant. The tonic function is the most stable and has a sense of resolution. The dominant function creates tension and leads back to the tonic, while the subdominant function provides contrast and balance.

Other Functions

In addition to these three main functions, there are also secondary functions that add complexity and interest to music. These include chords such as the supertonic (ii), mediant (iii), submediant (vi), leading tone (vii°), and more.

How Does Harmonic Function Work?

The concept of harmonic function is based on the relationship between chords within a key. For example, in the key of C major, the tonic chord is C major, the dominant chord is G major, and the subdominant chord is F major.

The relationship between these chords can be understood through a system of roman numerals. In this system, each chord is labeled with a roman numeral that corresponds to its position within the key.

Using this system, we can analyze the harmonic function of any given piece of music. For example, if a song in C major uses the chords C, F, and G in that order, we can label them as I (tonic), IV (subdominant), and V (dominant).

Examples of Harmonic Function in Music

Harmonic function is used in countless pieces of music across many different genres. Here are a few examples:

Classical Music

Classical composers such as Mozart and Beethoven used harmonic function extensively in their works. Beethoven’s famous “Moonlight Sonata” uses a simple progression of i–V–i (minor tonic to dominant back to minor tonic) to create a sense of tension and release.

Jazz Music

In jazz music, harmonic function plays an important role in improvisation and composition. Jazz musicians often use complex chord progressions that move through many different keys while still maintaining a sense of overall harmony.

Pop Music

Pop music also relies heavily on harmonic function to create catchy hooks and memorable melodies. One famous example is the progression vi–IV–I–V (submediant to subdominant to tonic to dominant) which appears in countless pop songs from “Let It Be” by The Beatles to “Someone Like You” by Adele.


Harmonic function is a crucial concept in music theory that helps us understand how chords and melodies work together to create a sense of harmony and balance. By analyzing the relationship between chords within a key, we can better appreciate the complexity and beauty of music.