In tonal music theory, a diatonic function (also chord area) is the specific, recognized role of each of the 7 notes and their chords in relation to the diatonic key. In this context, role means the degree of tension produced by moving toward a note, chord or scale other than the tonic, and how this musical tension would be eased (resolved) towards the stability of returning to the tonic chord, note, or scale (namely, function).
Each degree of the seven-tone diatonic scale has a name that relates to its function. The major scale and all three forms of the minor scale share these terms."—Benward & Saker
Three general and inseparable essential features of harmonic function in tonal music are:
- Position within a gamut (the available collection) of notes determines a note's function
- Each note within the gamut is a generator and collector of other notes in the gamut; in other words both the root and its chord exercise function, and
- Exercise and identification of function depends on musical behaviour or structure.
A fourth feature is the ambiguity that arises from the use of the same terms to describe functions across all temporal spans of a hierarchical structure from the surface to the deepest level, and that the longer term or deeper functions act as a center for shorter higher level ones and that the functions of each tend to counteract each other. "Harmonic function essentially results from the judgment that certain chords and tonal combinations sound and behave alike, even though these individuals might not be analyzed into equivalent harmonic classes," for example V and VII. "Harmonic function is more about...similarity than equivalence".
The term functional harmony derives from Hugo Riemann and his textbooks on harmony in the late 19th century, with roots back to Jean-Philippe Rameau's theoretical works amongst others. His main idea was to create a comprehensive theoretical basis for understanding the principles of harmonic relationships typical for the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods. His work had huge impact, especially where German influence was strong. A good example in this regard are the textbooks by Hermann Grabner.
Riemann's basic theories have since been adopted, refined and elaborated upon by many authors of textbooks in harmony, arranging and composition. Functional harmony is being taught as a basic discipline in music theory all over the western world, though different labels are used. Other terms used in the English and American tradition include Common Practice Harmony (stemming from Walter Piston), Tonal harmony (as used by Allen Forte), and Traditional harmony (as used by Gordon Delamont. Vincent Persichetti describes the 19th-century harmonic repertoire as "chords evolving around the tonic pillars" (tonic, subdominant, dominant).
Diatonic functions of notes and chords
Each degree of a diatonic scale, as well as each of many chromatically-altered notes, has a different diatonic function as does each chord built upon those notes. A pitch or pitch class and its enharmonic equivalents have different meanings. For example, a C♯ cannot substitute for a Db, even though in equal temperament they are identical pitches, because the D♭ can serve as the minor third of a B♭ minor chord while a C♯ cannot, and the C♯ can serve as the fifth degree of an F♯ major scale, while a D♭ cannot.
In music theory, as it is commonly taught in the US, there are seven different functions. In Germany, from the theories of Hugo Riemann, there are only three, and functions other than the tonic, subdominant and dominant are called their "parallels" (US: "relatives"). See Functional harmony. For instance, in the key of C major, an A minor (chord, scale, or, sometimes, the note A itself) is the Tonic parallel, or Tp. (German musicians use only uppercase note letters and Roman numeral abbreviations, while in the US, upper- and lowercase are usually used to designate major or augmented, and minor or diminished, respectively.) In the US, it would be referred to as the "relative minor".
As d'Indy summarizes:
- There is only one chord, a perfect chord; it alone is consonant because it alone generates a feeling of repose and balance;
- this chord has two different forms, major and minor, depending whether the chord is composed of a minor third over a major third, or a major third over a minor;
- this chord is able to take on three different tonal functions, tonic, dominant, or subdominant.—D'Indy (1903), 
In the United States, Germany, and other places the diatonic functions are:
|Function||Roman Numeral||English||German||German abbreviation|
|Mediant||iii||Dominant parallel/Tonic counter parallel||Dominanten-Parallele||Dp/Tkp|
|Leading||vii||incomplete Dominant seventh||verkürzter Dominant-Sept-Akkord||diagonally slashed D7 (D̸7)|
Note that the ii, iii, vi, and vii are lowercase; this is because in relation to the key, they are minor chords. Without accidentals, the vii is a diminished viio.
- The degrees listed according to function, in hierarchical order according to importance or centeredness (related to the tonic): I, V, IV, vi, iii, ii, viio. The first three chords are major, the next three are minor, and the last one is diminished.
- The tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords, in root position, each followed by its parallel. The parallel is formed by raising the fifth a whole tone; the root position of the parallel chords is indicated by the small noteheads.
Functions in the minor mode
In the US the minor mode or scale is considered a variant of the major, while in German theory it is often considered, per Riemann, the inversion of the major. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries a large number of symmetrical chords and relations were known as "dualistic" harmony. The root of a major chord in root position is its bass note, but, symmetrically, the 'root' of a minor chord in root position is the fifth (for example CEG and ACE). The plus and degree symbols, + and o, are used to denote that the lower tone of the fifth is the root, as in major, +d, or the higher, as in minor, od. Thus, if the major tonic parallel is the tonic, with the fifth raised a whole tone, then the minor tonic parallel is the tonic with the US root/German fifth lowered a whole tone.
|Parallel||Note letter in C||US name||Parallel||Note letter in C||US name|
|Tp||A minor||Submediant||tP||E♭ major||Mediant|
|Sp||D minor||Supertonic||sP||A♭ major||Submediant|
|Dp||E minor||Mediant||dP||B♭ major||Subtonic|
- The minor tonic, subdominant, dominant, and their parallels, created by lowering the fifth (German)/root (US) a whole tone.
If chords may be formed by raising (major) or lowering (minor) the fifth a whole step, they may also be formed by lowering (major) or raising (minor) the root a half-step to wechsel, the leading tone or leitton. These chords are Leittonwechselklänge (literally: "leading-tone changing sounds"), sometimes called gegenklang or "contrast chord".
- Major Leittonwechselklänge, formed by lowering the root a half step.
- Minor Leittonwechselklänge, formed by raising the root (US)/fifth (German) a half step.
Three categories can appear in any one of three chordal guises in either of two modes, eighteen positions in all: T, Tp, Tl, t, tP, tL, S, Sp, Sl, s, sP, sL, D, Dp, Dl, d, dP, dL. Why all this complexity? Perhaps the central reason is that this ingenious, occasionally convoluted system enabled Riemann to achieve a grand and masterful synthesis of both the old and the new in late 19th-century music. Ostensibly remote triads could be interpreted through the traditional terms of the I-IV-V-I, or now T-S-D-T, cadential schema. A sequence of A♭-major, B♭-major, and C-major chords, for example, could be neatly interpreted as a subdominant (sP) to dominant (dP) to tonic (T) progression in C-major, a reading of these chords not without support in certain late-Romantic cadences. And a chord that often perplexes harmony students, the Neapolitan chord D♭ major in a C-major context, could be shown to be nothing more than a minor-mode subdominant Leittonwechselklang (sL).—Carl Dahlhaus
Some may at first be put off by the overt theorizing apparent in German harmony, wishing perhaps that a choice be made once and for all between Riemann's Funktionstheorie and the older Stufentheorie, or possibly believing that so-called linear theories have settled all earlier disputes. Yet this ongoing conflict between antithetical theories, with its attendant uncertainties and complexities, has special merits. In particular, whereas an English-speaking student may falsely believe that he or she is learning harmony "as it really is," the German student encounters what are obviously theoretical constructs and must deal with them accordingly.—Carl Dahlhaus
Circle of fifths
Another theory regarding harmonic functionality is that "functional succession is explained by the circle of fifths (in which, therefore, scale degree II is closer to the dominant than scale degree IV)." According to Goldman's Harmony in Western Music, "the IV chord is actually, in the simplest mechanisms of diatonic relationships, at the greatest distance from I. In terms of the circle of fifths, it leads away from I, rather than toward it." Thus the progression I-ii-V-I would comply more with tonal logic. However, Goldman, as well as Jean-Jacques Nattiez, points out that "the chord on the fourth degree appears long before the chord on II, and the subsequent final I, in the progression I-IV-viio-iii-vi-ii-V-I."  Goldman also points out that, "historically the use of the IV chord in harmonic design, and especially in cadences, exhibits some curious features. By and large, one can say that the use of IV in final cadences becomes more common in the 19th century than it was in the 18th, but that it may also be understood as a substitute for the ii chord when it precedes V. It may also be quite logically construed as an incomplete ii7 chord (lacking root)."  However, Nattiez calls this, "a narrow escape: only the theory of a ii chord without a root allows Goldman to maintain that the circle of fifths is completely valid from Bach to Wagner." 
Tonicization and modulation
Functions during or after modulations, and especially tonicizations, are often notated in relation to the function—in the original key—of the chord being tonicized. For example, in C major, a D major chord is notated as II, but during a tonicization of a G major chord, it would be notated as it is functioning in G major but with the G also notated as it functions as the dominant of C major. The standard notation for this is: V/V (five of five). For example, the twelve bar blues turnaround, I-V-IV-I, considered tonally inadmissible, may be interpreted as a doubled plagal cadence, IV/V-V-IV-I (IV/V-I/V, IV/I-I/I).
From the viewpoint of musical behaviour or structure there are three essential functions:
Other functions serve to support the Tonic and Dominant functions listed above:
- Dominant preparation
- Tonic substitution or extension
The dominant, dominant preparation and the tonic substitution all involve more than one scale degree with only the tonic and subdominant containing only one scale degree. Several scale degrees exercise more than one function.
The tonic includes four separate activities or roles as the:
- Principal goal tone or event
- Initiating event
- Generator of other tones, and the
- Stable center neutralizing the tension between dominant and subdominant, while the dominant has only the role of creating instability that requires the tonic or goal-tone for release.
- The subdominant also acts as a dominant preparation. A tonic extension is an elaboration of an initiating event while substitution is an alteration of a cadential point or goal tone. Many of these functions may still be found in post-tonal music.
- Common practice period
- Constant structure
- Diatonic and chromatic
- Nondominant seventh chord
- Secondary dominant
- Subsidiary chord
- Roman numeral analysis
- Innig, Renate (1970). System der Funktionsbezeichnung in den Harmonielehren seit Hugo Riemann. Düsseldorf: Gesellschaft zur Förderung der systematischen Musikwissenschaft. [German]
- Rehding, Alexander: Hugo Riemann and the Birth of Modern Musical Thought (New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism). Cambridge University Press (2003). ISBN 0-521-82073-1.
- Riemann, Hugo: Vereinfachte Harmonielehre, oder die Lehre von den tonalen Funktionen der Akkorde (1893). ASIN: B0017UOATO.
- Schoenberg, Arnold: Structural Functions of Harmony. W.W.Norton & Co. (1954, 1969) ISBN 0-393-00478-3, ISBN 0-393-02089-4.
- Unlocking the Mysteries of Diatonic Harmony www.artofcomposing.com
- Example of Music theory course description from "Principles of harmony" (Archive from 24 November 2010, accessed 28 May 2013).