Music Analysis

Music analysis

Music analysis can refer to many things. The word 'analysis' originates from the Greek "dissolution" -  meaning something along the lines of examining the parts which things or phenomena consist of. You may also know about poetry analysis from school. How many stanzas and lines does the poem contain? What is the rhyme scheme and rhythm and what does it mean?

In music analysis, as the name implies, you analyse music. Dividing a piece of music into smaller parts and examining all of them together or maybe just a single aspect. There are many things to analyse in a piece of music. In this article, you can read about how you analyse some of the important parts which music typically consists of Form (structure,) harmonies (chords,)  melodies, rhythms/grooves. If there is a vocal part this, and its relation to the music, can be analysed as well.

Musical analysis is important for developing your musicality. It can also be helpful when preparing for aural exams. We have teachers who can help you understand the music theory foundations and also help you develop your ear for musical analysis:

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Harmonic analysis

In harmonic analysis you analyse harmonies - i.e. you are studying the chords. You use different methods. Here you can read about the most used: Roman numeral analysis and functional analysis. The methods match each of their genres. Roman numeral analysis for example is used for jazz, blues and much rock and pop, while functional analysis is best for classical music - roughly speaking - 1700-1900, but also some of today's pop music.

Roman numeral analysis

In Roman numeral analysis, the chords are given a number depending on which scale the individual chord is based on. They are written with Roman numerals. If you have forgotten how to write Roman numerals, here is a short overview:

Roman Numeral Decimal
I 1
II 2
IV 4
V 5
VI 6

If a step is augmented or diminished relative to a normal major scale it is indicated with a "#" or "b" in front of the Roman numeral. Furthermore you indicate wether it is a major or minor chord and chord extensions.

Indicating major and minor chords

Indicating major and minor chords can be done by writing upper and lower case letters - upper case for major, lower case for minor - or by writing an "m" behind a minor chord, just like with normal chord symbols. Here is an example i C major:

Step Chord
i Cm
bII Db
bii Dbm
ii Dm
biii Ebm
iii Em
iv Fm
#IV / bV F# / Gb
#iv / bv F#m / Gbm
Gm v

Typical patterns you can search for are ii-V-I cadences (pronounced: 2-5-1 cadences) or 12-bar blues:

C = I C = I C = I C = I
F = IV F = IV C = I C = I
G = V F = IV C = I G = V


  • Find the key and I
  • The first thing you do in a Roman numeral analysis is to examine what key the chords are being played in - what chord does one hear at 'home'? You can either listen for it or look at the score, where you can sometimes see it on the song's key signature sign (if you know your circle of fifths) and on start and / or end chords.
  • Write down a major scale with the tonic of the song
    When you have found out which chord is I, you can write down a major scale with tonic and the song's I to help you with the analysis. If for example a song is in the key of C major and an Eb chords occurs, you can easily see that Eb is a semitone beneath the third tone of the scale. Thus the name for it must be bIII
  • Analyse all relevant chords
    Now all you have to do is analyse the song from one end to another - or the part of the song you would like to examine
  • Use the analysis - look for patterns and structures
    What do you use the analysis for? Use it to look for certain patterns and structures there might lie behind the chords. The vamp I-V-ii-vi i.e. shows that there is a descending fifth in the bass which controls the chord vamp. I-ii-IV clearly shows that the tonic ascends one step for each chord. Use your knowledge from the analysis.

Functional harmonic analysis

In a functional harmonic analysis you examine what function a chord has in relation to the key and the previous and subsequent chords. It is difficult to explain exactly what is meant by "function" but it is a form of interpretation or explanation of the role or impact of the chord on the harmonic sequence.
Main functions
Function theory tells us that there are three and only three main functions:

  • Tonic (T for short). Tonic on I, in C major: C
  • Dominant (D for short). Tonic on V, in C major: G
  • Subdominant (S for short). Tonic on IV, in C major: F

There are of course also chord other than D, F and G. These chords in some way represent T, S or D.
Broadly speaking, all functional harmonic music consists of authentic cadences. These can be shortened or extended, merged, modulated etc.
These are the patterns which functional harmonic analysis examines:

  • Tonic: Has its tonic on the first step. It is on this chord that you will hear 'home' and where the music rests.
  • Dominant: Has its tonic on the fifth step and is always a major chord. A minor chord on the fifth step is not a real dominant. The chord 'leads' to the tonic chord. Most often it will be dominant chords that are altered with a seventh or ninth.
  • Subdominant: Has its tonic on the fourth step. In music in a major key the subdominant is most often a major chord and vice verse for music in a minor key. Though, especially in romantic music having a minor subdominant in a major key is a cliché. It is often extended with a sixth.

The perfect cadence and affinity

The authentic cadence is fundamental to functional harmonies and functional harmony theory. In an authentic cadence you hear alle seven notes of the scale and thus there is created a clear feeling of the key. The authentic cadence consists of the functions in this sequence:

Function Chord in C-major
T (Tonic) C
S (Subdominant) F
D (Dominant) G
T (Tonic) C

It is said that there are three types of relationship between these chords which are important to functional harmonic theory:

  • Descending fifth: The tonic descends a fifth from T to S and from D to T
  • Common tone: There are common notes between T and S and between D and T.
  • Leading-tone: The third of the dominant is leading-tone to the tonic. The leading-tone is always on the seventh step of the scale. In the same way, it can be said that the third of the tonic leads to the tonic of the subdominant.

The watchful observer will see that there is neither descending fifth, common tone, or leading-tone relationship between S and D. There is a 'hole' in the authentic cadence. This is though often closed by extending the chords on S and D which gives common tone affinity and in a way also descending fifth affinity.:

Function Chord in C-major
T (Tonika) C
S6 (Subdominant) F6
D7 (Dominant) G7
T (Tonika) C

The plagal cadence

If S does not lead to D but instead continues to T it is called a plagal cadence. A plagal cadence like S-T does not have a descending fifth between the tonics but instead a descending fourth. Therefore, you could also call T-D a plagal cadence. Both instances can be seen as a shortening of the authentic cadence.

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