Harmony Explored: A Guide to Tension and Release for any Progression.

What is functional harmony? 

Functional harmony is a set of ideas used to create logical chord progressions where each chord has a definable role. The chord's job depends on its relationship to the tonic chord (I). Some Chords will sound stable and resolved, while other chords will sound unresolved and unexpected,

The aim of this tutorial is to give ideas and understanding to constructing chord progressions quicker, easier, and with more confidence, although some music theory knowledge is needed. Please check out our Music Theory Tutorial to get up to speed.

What is a tonic chord?

It's very important to understand the relevance of the tonic chord as the chords only do their intended job in relation to the established tonic chord. A tonic chord is the root of the scale, it feels like the start and the final resolution, it's the chord our ears want, and expect, to hear. 

For simplicity, I will work with the C major scale

C Major scale (All the white notes)

We use roman numerals to name their relationship with the tonic chord and these relationships can be categorized into resolved (consonance) and unresolved (dissonance).

A mixture of these makes music more exciting and far more interesting.  The unexpected dissonance chords will always want to move back to the tonic to relieve the tension. 

So firstly, what chords are classed as dissonance, and what is classed as consonance?


(ii) and (vi) - Week Dissonance

(IV) - Strong Dissonance

(vii) - Strongest Dissonance

Some chords have more dissonance than others, the 4th (IV) and the 7th (vii) have the strongest dissonance. The stronger the dissonance the more desire the listener has for the tonic(I) chord, the home.


(I) - Home Base (tonic Chord)

(V) - Harmonizing chord

(iii) - Resolving chord

These chords have a close relationship with the tonic, Much like the dissonant chords, some constant chords sound more resolved than others, these chords are the (I) and the (V) of the scale.

So what can we do with this information?

In music, dissonance and consonance can be used to create tension and resolution. One way to do this is to start with a weaker dissonance and then build tension by using a stronger dissonance before resolving with a consonance chord. While these principles can be bent or broken, following them can help prevent mistakes when improvising or creating chord progressions.

Some common chord progressions

(I)  - (iv) - (V) - Resolved, Unresolved, Resolved

You could also look at enhancing the dissonance before resolving, this works well if the first dissonance chord is weaker than the next.

(I) – (vi) – (IV) – (V) - Resolved, Unresolved, Unresolved, Resolved.

(ii) - (IV) - (V)- (I) - Unresolved, Unresolved, Resolved, Resolved.

The following Ian O'Donnell's tutorial explains the basics very well. 

What is Negative Harmony?

Negative harmony is a concept in music theory that was popularized by the jazz musician and composer Ernst Levy and later explored by others. The idea behind negative harmony is to transform traditional harmony by mirroring or inverting it.

In traditional harmony, chords, and progressions are based on the relationships between pitches and their respective intervals. Negative harmony suggests that you can create new harmonic structures by taking the mirror image or inversion of existing chords and progressions.

Mirror Image: Take a given chord or melody and create its mirror image by flipping each pitch around a central axis. The central axis is often the midpoint between the lowest and highest notes.

Inversion: Alternatively, you can think of negative harmony as inverting pitches around a central axis. This involves taking each pitch and finding its opposite on the other side of the axis.

The result is a set of pitches that are related to the original by a kind of symmetry. The idea is to explore new harmonic possibilities by using this inversion or mirroring process.

It's important to note that negative harmony is a theoretical concept and not a strict set of rules. Different musicians may interpret and apply it in various ways. While it may not be widely used in mainstream music, some composers and arrangers find it a useful tool for creating unique and unexpected harmonic progressions.

Music Theory for guitar, have created a video using logical chord progressions but including chord substitutions using negative harmony. 

In essence, music revolves around the interplay of tension and release. Functional harmony, explored in this tutorial, serves as a guide for creating coherent chord progressions, emphasizing the pivotal role of the tonic chord (I). By understanding consonance and dissonance within the C major scale, musicians can strategically weave tension and resolution into their compositions.

Common chord progressions were introduced as tools for manipulating this tension-release dynamic. Furthermore, the concept of negative harmony showcased a unique approach to transforming traditional harmonies, offering artists an innovative tool for creative expression.

Ultimately, the heart of music lies in its ability to harness tension and release, allowing artists to craft captivating and dynamic musical journeys.

Check out our other music theory help and support for tutorials on composition, arrangement, and rhythm.