What is Functional Analysis?

What philosophy lies behind the labels of Functional Analysis? These functional labels highlight several other things in addition to function, drawing attention to the following aspects of music and harmony: cadence, non-scalar organization, bass-oriented analysis, and larger-span analysis. This section explores how Functional Analysis labels are used. The above listed priorities are expounded upon in that order.

  1. Functional Analysis is based on the cadence, not the scale. The beginning of function is to hear chords as they create metaphorical motion towards a cadence. The stability of the tonic exists only in relationship to the desire of the dominant to resolve in a cadence to create closure. In some musical styles, different sounds can represent these desires. We will focus on common-practice tonality, but an exploration of styles that use other sonic vocabularies is possible.
  2. Because of this cadential focus, chords are organized in terms of relationships of fifths or thirds, rather than ordered linearly in a scale. Scale is primarily a melodic, horizontal phenomenon while harmony is primarily vertical. Although melody and harmony are interrelated, beginning with a more vertical harmonic conception helps to differentiate between harmonic and melodic processes. Because of music’s temporal nature, it rarely makes sense to completely divorce the vertical and horizontal dimensions, but having a clear conception of what is more prominent at which times can be useful. Harmony can also be conceived of more linearly, which lies predominantly within the realm of Schenkerian analysis.
  3. Functional Analysis encourages orientation towards the bass. Bass pitches provide the foundation on which each function is built. The pitch content of a chord is less important than how it is functioning. Motion in the melody can happen over the bass without necessarily changing the function. Because of this allowance for motion over a functional bass, triads are important but not to exclusion; the bass-oriented function is more important than the triad. If a given sonority has a strong sense of function but does not stack in thirds to form the expected functional triad, the function supersedes the triad. While an analysis using Functional Analysis symbols will begin with the bass, the labels themselves are not bass-oriented but triad-root-oriented. This is an important distinction between Functional Analysis and the figures that accompany Roman numerals; in Roman numerals, all intervals are shown from the bass. In Functional Analysis, intervals are shown from the root, regardless of whether the root is in the bass or not.
  1. Finally, and most importantly, larger-span oriented analysis comes first, as students must understand phrase pillars before harmonic details. Starting large, at more background levels, allows students to come to grips with longer stretches of music sooner. It also makes phrase construction a natural part of analysis at the first stages of analysis. The very first lesson begins with defining the cadence. In this context, there are no cadences without a concept of phrase, as cadences and phrases help to define each other, and that harmonic motion which defines a phrase is founded on the most important functional pillars. Functional Analysis emphasizes a big-to-small approach: once the big-idea concepts are in place, it is much easier to add detail, instead of starting with detail and trying to zoom out.

Here are posts detailing the basics of Functional Analysis:

Lesson 0: What is analysis?

Lesson 1: Cadence and Form

Lesson 2: Tonic and Dominant

Lesson 3: Predominant and Subdominant

Lesson 4: Numbers

Lesson 5: Substitute Functions

Lesson 6: Diminished Chords

Lesson 7: Basic Chromaticism, Part 1

Main Idea Summary

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