Harmonic Analysis with Decoration

When we analyse chromatic music, we need to begin by separating the layers of music (bass, melody and any middle parts), to work out a functional harmonic structure. We can then determine what sort of decoration, chromatic or otherwise, has been used.+

In most music, the lower parts form the harmony and the upper parts contain the melody and decoration notes. (Although not all music is written this way, it is the most common way of organising a composition, so it is useful to begin with this assumption).

  • Use the bass line and try to work out an initial chord progression. (This may differ from the final analysis, but it is useful as a beginning step!)

This is the bass line of a piano piece by the Romantic era composer Cornelius Gurlitt (op.172 no.8). This piece begins in F major (the first note is C natural, which would be extremely unlikely in the key of D minor, where the leading note is usually raised to C#). Try to work out a suitable chord progression yourself, then check your answers below.

Gurlitt bass line

Bar 1: C and E belong to chord Va.

Bar 2: D and F belong to chord vi. The progression V-vi is valid.

Bar 3: E belongs to chord V, and D can be classed as an unaccented passing note.

Bar 4: C# and A do not belong to the current key. C# should be a chord note, because it is accented and follows a non-chord note. A should also be a chord note, because it is both approached and quit by a leap. Possible chords are A major or F# minor. A major would lead to a chord of Dm (acting as the secondary dominant), and the next note is indeed D, so this is V/vi (dominant of vi). The progression V (home key) – V (secondary dominant) is valid.

Bar 5: D is the root of Dm. At this point we do not know if Dm is chord vi in F major, or if we have actually modulated to D minor, so we can look to the end of the phrase to check the key of the cadence. The cadence notes are C-F, which suggests the key is still F major, so this is chord vi. The E is an unaccented passing note.

Bar 6: F could belong to vib, or Ia. Following via in the previous bar, vib is a better progression (because vi does not normally move to I). F# can be classed as a chromatic passing note.

Bar 7: G belongs to iia, vii°b and Vc. The most likely solution here is iia, because an octave leap is typically done with the root of a chord. Also, vii°b normally moves to I, which does not happen here, and this is not a suitable place for a second inversion dominant chord.

Bar 8: Octave Cs suggest chord V, and this, of course, fits with a perfect cadence.

Bar 9: Chord I.

The result is an opening which does not arrive at a tonic chord until bar 9. “Hiding” the home key (tonal ambiguity) is relatively common in Romantic music (but is rare in earlier styles). (Another example is the opening of Chopin’s Ballade no.1 in G minor, which begins on an N6 chord).

bass line with chord analysis

The next step is to isolate the melody line. Usually this is the topmost part, but could alternatively be a middle part. A melody part will usually move fairly smoothly, rather than in chords or arpeggios.

Here is the melody line from the same piece, with the bass line. We need to check that each melody note works within the harmonic framework we have sketched in. Each note must either be a chord note, or a recognised type of non-chord note. We can make adjustments to the chord progressions as we go, to make things fit.

bass plus melody

Bar 1: E and C are chord notes. B is accented, resolves by step, and does not belong to the home key, so it is a chromatic appoggiatura.

Bar 2: F and D are chord notes, C# is another chromatic appoggiatura.

Bar 3: G belongs to chord Vb, but because the Bb is approached by a leap (and stays there until the end of the bar), it is likely to be a chord note, not a decoration note. Bb with D in the bass will likely sound like a new (passing) chord of IVb. Notice that, although chord V does not tend to move to chord IV, it is fine as a passing chord, placed on a weak beat between V and another valid chord.

Bar 4: A and G are both chord notes if we update the chord to V7b. The G would be the 7th, and correctly falls by step in the following chord.

Bar 5: F belongs to via, but the melody notes on beat 2 suggest another chord is necessary here: neither B# nor C# belong to chord vi, but they cannot both be non-chord notes. If we change the chord on beat 2, the bass E will, of course, be a chord note. We have already seen two chromatic appoggiaturas, so it is a reasonable assumption that B# is another, and the chord notes are E and C# (passing 6/4, Vc/vi). The passing 6/4 works fine here, because it falls on the weak beat, and it is the middle chord where the bass line moves by step.

Bar 6: D belongs to vib, but G# and F# would both be non-chord notes falling on beat 2, unless we, again, add a chord here. Assuming G# is another chromatic appoggiatura, the chord could be Vb/ii (secondary dominant moving to G minor ii).

Bar 7: C does not belong to iia. If we treat the C as a chord note, the only possible solution would be Vc, but a second inversion chord is not possible here. This means the C will be a non-chord note. It is accented, approached by a leap and quit by a step, so it is an appoggiatura. Bb is a chord note.

Bar 8: A does not belong to Va, but we do need a proper cadence here, so the progression is correct, and the A is an accented passing note (or you could also interpret it as V13).

Bar 9: A belongs to the F major tonic chord.

Here is the updated chord progression so far.

updated chord analysis

Many piano pieces consist of just a bass line and melody, but many more also include a harmony/accompaniment part, which is most often found in the middle of the texture. Here is the same piece, with the middle part included. The middle part can sometimes make the harmony seem a lot more complicated than it really is, which is why it is a good idea to analyse one part at a time.

Our final step is to make any adjustments that are necessary, in order to accommodate the notes in the middle part. Check the notes in the middle part with the chord, and make sure any non-chord notes are identifiable.

with middle parts

Bar 1: Everything is ok.

Bar 2: The G and B natural do not fit chord via. Instead, the chord notes are G-B-D-F which is V7c/V. This chord works fine, because it moves to V in the next bar.

Bar 3: Everything is ok.

Bar 4: Everything is ok.

Bar 5: On beat 2 we can update the chord to V7c/vi, to include the G.

Bar 6: The first beat is ok, but we need to accommodate the C and Eb, which do not belong to Vb/ii. The notes F#-A-C-Eb form chord vii°7 in G minor, so this is vii°7/ii (a dominant substitute).

Bar 7: Everything is ok.

Bar 8: We will change the chord to V7a to accommodate the Bb.

Bar 9: Ok.

Here is the final analysis:

final analysis

It is worth pointing out here, how the analysis might have been done incorrectly, if the process was not done in layers. In bar 1 for example, you may have seen the notes E, G and B and assumed a chord of E minor. In bar 5, you may have considered E-G-A-B# as too confusing to solve. In bar 8, the notes A, C and E may have drawn you to A minor. Appoggiaturas often disguise the true nature of a chord, so it is vital to begin by putting a firm harmonic structure, with valid progressions, in place.

If you have a long piece to analyse, I would recommend working through the layers of one phrase at a time, or a few bars at a time.