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Old 05-30-2019, 05:39 PM
Paultergeist Paultergeist is offline
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Default Harmonic Analysis -- Is It Really Worth It?

Greetings,

I find myself repeatedly re-visiting this line of thought, and I never seem to reach a conclusion which is entirely satisfying or enlightening. I am hoping that some of the other experienced forum members may have some insights or knowledge to share.

As a method towards (a) memorizing songs as well as (b) understanding songs better, I have long been advised by my music mentors to "harmonically analyze" the chords which comprise the songs I wish to play. By the term "harmonic analysis," I mean the exercise/study of assigning Roman numerals to the chords within a piece of music, and extrapolating relationships and functions based on those chord numerals in relationship to each other. I have been performing this practice -- inconsistently, admittedly -- for a number of years when studying a new piece of music (often popular or jazz music).

I am coming to the conclusion that this practice does not seem to be of any use to me, but this is inconsistent with the conventional music theory wisdom. I truly wonder if I am missing some great epiphany which would make all the pieces fit together? Some personal observations:

1. Although I may go through the process of harmonic analysis of songs/progressions, once I have the chords of the song memorized, my brain is simply recalling the next chord or voicing when performing. Frankly, I don't feel like I can process fast enough to *think* in my head ("okay the next chord is a "three" chord, that is a minor chord, that chord is two full steps up from the root, the root is G, so the iii chord is Bm.") It seems much quicker to simply memorize that the next chord is a Bm.

2. I strive to do a better job of memorizing songs -- that would be my primary rationale for applying harmonic analysis -- and I feel like demanding memorization of the harmonic analysis is mainly just adding to the sheer amount of memorization effort, in addition to memorizing the chord progressions themselves.

3. Most profoundly for me, I find that the application of harmonic analysis itself has so very many twists and exceptions that I really have to wonder what the utility of this practice really is? Even in popular music which is simple to pay and memorize, when I try to apply harmonic analysis, I find so many exceptions to the basic diatonic key chords: Plagal cadence, borrowed chords, parallel harmony, secondary dominance, etc., all of which seem like various explanations for when classical harmonic analysis breaks down.

I don't want to be ignorant, but I am not seeing the utility in this harmonic analysis....yet I continue to hear/read as to how useful this process can be as a means of understanding / memorizing music. I am trying to understand is there really IS an end-game to this practice which is applicable to performance?

Insightful comments will be much appreciated.
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Old 05-30-2019, 06:19 PM
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rick-slo rick-slo is offline
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The value of it:

Very little, if at all, when learning your repertoire of pieces from music scores and or tabs.

A bit more when picking stuff up by ear as you may know more of what to expect and recognize it when it happens.

A bit more yet when you are composing or arranging and you become trapped in a corner or stuck to a to wall.

A lot more when you want to talk about or read about the lingo. If you enjoy doing that then go for it big time.

When listening to music I am thinking more about the phrasing, accenting, tempo variations, and emotion in general
than about Roman numerals.
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Old 05-30-2019, 09:55 PM
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That was an excellent response, Derek!!
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Old 05-31-2019, 02:47 AM
JonPR JonPR is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Paultergeist View Post
3. Most profoundly for me, I find that the application of harmonic analysis itself has so very many twists and exceptions that I really have to wonder what the utility of this practice really is? Even in popular music which is simple to pay and memorize, when I try to apply harmonic analysis, I find so many exceptions to the basic diatonic key chords: Plagal cadence, borrowed chords, parallel harmony, secondary dominance, etc., all of which seem like various explanations for when classical harmonic analysis breaks down.
Exactly. Pop music is not classical music!
The concepts you mention are definitely part of classical theory - all of them (with the possible exception of parallel harmony) can have roman numerals meaningfully applied.
But pop often takes those rules very loosely, mainly because it follows other rules. In particular, rock makes a lot of use of modal or non-functional practices. In addition, the most important rules of rock and pop are not really about harmony at all. Harmony is a kind of sideshow! Rock and pop are much more concerned with rhythm, timbre, melody, lyric - probably in that order - with harmony coming in after all those.

But even where you can - meaningfully - apply roman numerals to pop progressions (i.e., where there is a definite tonic chord and others that clearly relate to it), what does it tell you? They're only labels for the sounds, they don't explain anything. Even in classical music, they don't explain how it works. They just describe what's going on.

That's not to say description is not useful, of course. But IMO the only descriptors you need when learning pop/rock music are chord names.
So, you may well recognise something like a bVI-bVII-I when you hear it (and feel appropriately smug ); so if you know the key is G you'll know the other two chords are Eb and F. But you could work that out without the roman numerals - as most rock musicians in fact would.
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Old 05-31-2019, 01:26 PM
Trevor B. Trevor B. is offline
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Assigning Roman numerals to chords (harmonic movement) is just a form of notational shorthand to make processing harmonic information quicker and easier. It grew out of a 17th and 18th century practice called figured bass. Roman numerals denoted the chord to be played above a specific bass note and Arabic numerals attached to them spelled out inversions and melodic anomalies. For example V4/2 tells me that the 7th is the lowest voice in the dominant 7th chord and will likely resolve down a half step. Similarly II6-5 tells me that the 6 note is an appoggiatura and should likely be accented. It's hard to imagine how one would navigate the harmonic terrain of say a Sor study or the Aranjuez Concerto or even make coherent guitar arrangements of Turlough O'Carolan pieces without at least a basic harmonic analysis underpinning the effort.
Beyond that an understanding of functional harmony contributes to interpreting pieces more musically. It directly impacts phrasing, voice-leading, accents, timbral decisions, etc, etc, etc. I'll be the first to concede there's little or no value to knowing harmony in several currently ubiquitous pop idioms but for classical, jazz, and a great deal of folk music it's incredibly useful, even essential, IMHO.
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Old 05-31-2019, 01:38 PM
jaymarsch jaymarsch is offline
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I have been taking guitar lessons over the past six months or so with a wonderful singer/songwriter guitar player who is a fabulous teacher. We have just begun to delve more into this as I write and play songs. I am taking it in nice bit-sized chunks and can see the value to the choices I have in the harmonic and melodic movement of my songs. If I end the first line of the verse with a full cadence, maybe I want to end the second and third lines with a half cadence so the audience knows that the melody is still taking them somewhere and not settle back to the home chord until the end of the second verse. I think of it as a palette of color choices and the harmonic analysis is just showing me the possibilities which keeps me from writing music that can sound the same song after song. It is helping me to learn how to listen more deeply. That said, I know many 3 chord songs that do not do anything fancy and I still love them.

Now, I haven't necessarily thought of it or used it as a memorization tool but I suppose I could see how memorizing and identifying certain chord sequences might be helpful. But if it isn't speaking to you or you're not finding it particularly useful right now, then I can certainly understand you questioning the validity of how it might be improving your own musical journey.

I do find it hard to buy into something that I cannot immediate apply and find useful. Not sure if any of this helps but thought I would toss my experience in the mix anyway.

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Old 05-31-2019, 01:45 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Paultergeist View Post

[snip]

As a method towards (a) memorizing songs as well as (b) understanding songs better, I have long been advised by my music mentors to "harmonically analyze" the chords which comprise the songs I wish to play. By the term "harmonic analysis," I mean the exercise/study of assigning Roman numerals to the chords within a piece of music, and extrapolating relationships and functions based on those chord numerals in relationship to each other. I have been performing this practice -- inconsistently, admittedly -- for a number of years when studying a new piece of music (often popular or jazz music).

[snip]

Insightful comments will be much appreciated.

You're confusing compositional analysis for simply knowing how common chord progressions fit together.

You don't need to bring up plagal cadences and whatnot to recognize a I IV V in the key of G or a ii V I in Bb.

Roman numerals are just a shorthand. You can memorize Amin7 D9 Gmin7 C9 Fmaj7 or you can memorize iii VI ii V I key of F. The difference being, you'll only run into the former in the key of F, but you'll run into the latter in many different keys and songs.

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Old 05-31-2019, 02:01 PM
Paultergeist Paultergeist is offline
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Thank you, everyone, for the insightful replies. I have read through all of these responses, and I am giving these perspectives careful thought.

My sincere gratitude to all.
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Old 05-31-2019, 03:28 PM
jseth jseth is offline
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Accurate harmonic analysis can be extremely useful for soloing or improvising over a certain set of changes... always guided by the melody of the piece, knowing "what's happening" within a song is paramount to both single note playing and re-harmonizing sections of the song to suit your desires...

I find it useful in learning a song and remembering it easily as well - and no, I don't think to myself, "okay, now there's the III min chord"... but if it's a series of chords such as a II-min7 - V7 in a different key, then it helps me approach that section more fluently. Also quite useful in composing inventions and extensions on a theme.

There ARE lots of "exceptions" (although there are rules and reasons why), and that can be frustrating... as the man who taught me harmony and theory when he was fresh out of Berklee School of Music told me - one of his professors in an advanced functional reharmonization class said, "Remember, folks, ALL of this stuff was invented by a bunch of white intellectuals who were trying to prove "why?" the Blues works..."!!!
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Old 05-31-2019, 05:39 PM
Mandobart Mandobart is offline
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For me, yes definitely worth it. I am a classically trained violinist, and contrary to what many self-taught musicians post here and elsewhere, you don't really need any "theory" to be a classical musician. You just need to be able to read music and be technically proficient to pull good tone from your instrument. When I branched out to jazz, bluegrass and Americana, I found it very helpful to understand intervals, degrees, chord structure, etc. because I learned everything by ear. When you play by ear it is so much smoother when you know the song's actual structure. Transposing is simple (and you don't even need a capo). But it doesn't matter what I think or what my experience has been - if you've decided its too hard or not worth it, then that's the way it is for you, right now, at this stage, however long you decide to be here.
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Old 05-31-2019, 08:40 PM
Denny B Denny B is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jseth View Post
"Remember, folks, ALL of this stuff was invented by a bunch of white intellectuals who were trying to prove "why?" the Blues works..."!!!

I'd like to have that quote embroidered, framed and hung on the wall of my music room...
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Old 06-06-2019, 02:46 PM
Laughingboy68 Laughingboy68 is offline
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I love taking a song apart to see how it works. My brain likes the exercise. It helps when Iím lifting a song to recognize the oft-repeated patterns that exist. When Iím writing, sometimes Iíll be inspired by a harmonic exercise from another song.
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Old 06-06-2019, 08:37 PM
alnico5 alnico5 is offline
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Knowledge is fun! I enjoy knowing what I am doing. I practice on hymns in church. The same chord progressions were used back when.
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Old 06-06-2019, 09:30 PM
Gordon Currie Gordon Currie is offline
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I see it like learning to cook. You can follow recipes and master them, and you'll end up with some good dishes you can make. Or, you might cultivate some of the foundational skills and notice that they are used over and over with slight variations - thus opening the door to many more dishes.

Once you know how to make a basic soup base, there are hundreds of soups that can be made from a few choice additions.

Harmonic analysis can help you discover that this new song is 90% the same as a song you already know. As Mycroft alluded to, if you are playing by ear, the ability to recognize common patterns can put you way ahead of the game.
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Old 06-07-2019, 05:59 AM
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im not a pro player, or not really even a good player, roman numerals arent for me, harmonic analysis is just a big word that i call harmony- harmony is just the vocal or music you want the song to sound like- if you know the notes in every chord, then youll know what to play for your harmony sound stucture, most harmonies are 2 notes, triads or octave (if you consider octave a harmony) further cases, say if the note is a whole note, the harmony might be a 1/2 note and 2 quarter notes, then you include knowing scales into this, at least thats how i see it. im aware thats the old fashioned way, but im not a dot,tab and numeral player, i just saying if you know your notes and scales- harmony is second nature
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