[Smt-talk] The use of III and other chords in progressions

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Thu Feb 16 10:54:56 PST 2012

Dear Colleagues,

A lot of things may be said concerning the frequency with which some chords appear in the "common practice period". By saying different things, especially to our students, we have to be careful not to close permanently a door that leads to elegant examples without which music would not be so rich and diverse. Thus I may say, "III is used more rarely than the other functions (which will not be true in minor where it is tonicized rather frequently)" but then I will stop and allow the students to explore the III chord according to some examples from the literature and some melodic profiles that are harmonized with III. In other words, the III chord will represent a separate study by itself.

I did not have to look hard to find III in both classical and romantic literature. I have a collection with me, if anyone is interested, I will scan those examples and will email them personally to you. They do not have measure numbers, but a further investigation will find those too. All letters bellow are capital.

1. Bach, chorale in B-flat: progression I-VI-III-IV-V2-I, etc. The liaison VI-III is not a part of a Pachelbel sequence.
2. Bach, chorale in D: I-VI-III-IV-V-VI-V-I. No Pachelbel
3. Bach, chorale in G: I-VI-III-IV-VII dim.6-I-V-I. No Pachelbel
4. Mozart, from Requiem, Andante con moto excerpt in Gm: I-V6-I-VI-III-IV-I. No Pachelbel.

As you may observe, all these examples contain a VI-III connection of no Pachelbel sequence type. In all of them the III chord is followed by IV.

5. In Schubert's German Mass, the Holy, Holy theme (Bb) in the first phrase ends with III6 -I. Here it has a dominant function and may be marked as V sus6 or V sub. 6, or (in some books) V6, which may be confusing. Some professors may make a bid deal of III6 vs. Vsub.6, but I do not. III6 is technically correct, because III may substitute for V, not only in first inversion, but also in root position, as we shall see farther down. On the other hand, Vsus6 or Vsub. 6 are functionally preferable to many.  

6. Tchaikovsky, a fragment from the opera "Snowmade" (Snegurochka): Allegro excerpt in D major: I-V6-I-III-I-I6-II-VI-II-VI-V. This example is interesting with two things: 1) here the III chord in root position resolves into I, the melodic contour being 7-1, and the impression is of a mild dominant resolving to tonic; 2) the connection II-VI is also interesting. The entire passage is repeated.

7. Moussorgsky, an excerpt from Boris Godunov: we have the III chord acting as a dominant substitute, and later as a tonic substitute: in a Moderato passage in C we have: I-V6-VI-V-III-I-III-II-I6-V-III-VI. Also notice III and II are connected in root position.

Concerning Nos. 6 and 7. Imagine if I told my students: "Do no connect III to I, do not connect II to VI, and do not connect V to III". This would be a lie to which no serious teacher would want to subscribe. On the contrary, it is much better to show them this wonderful progressions and to state that the doors are open to experiment with them after the most typical functional arrangements have been mastered. 

8. Dvorjak, Symphony of the New World, Allegro molto in G: I-VI-III-V4/3-I-II6-V7-I. "Do not connect III to V"?

All these examples are just a tiny bit of the enormous diversity of the common practice period, which stretches in some respects to nowadays. These examples are not extremely rare, exotic, unusual or anything of that sort. These are "innocent mild" progressions. Their number simply increases in parallel with the development of different composition styles and trends. We have only had a glimpse of a little corner. 

Romantic music, an especially Russian music of the 19th century explore the mediant functions and the plagal relationships to the tonic, which creates more diversity and smooths out the very concrete and sharp D-T effect. If those composers were to consult a database before composing those nice examples, their music would sound like the music of their predecessors. 

In the light of this promising picture of exploration of harmonic functions, the statement "The III is pretty much not used" sounds obsolete and inaccurate.

We may also find the V-III connection, where III appears as a tonic substitute and usually leads to VI (in No. 7 above). Another interesting exploration (not present here) is V-II-V - all in root position. 

Once I heard a student complain that their teacher said to them that connecting VII dim. or VII half-diminished to V was wrong because the only chord expected after VII dim was I. In my astonishment I took the student to the piano, made her play a diminished seventh chord and only change one tone; she was amazed to discover how nicely VII dim7 converts into V6/5, and she could not believe this natural motion was wrong. I call this a process of conversion form a little dominant (VII) to a big dominant (V). This little case confirmed for one more time my conviction that reiterating questionable definitions written in different books and teaching rules instead of principles, eventually cripples the student's mind and kills creativity. Why? Because the teacher is content with what is said in the book and has no intention of being more inquisitive, curious, critical, and creative. Naturally, students follow suit.

This is why I do not teach harmony by consulting statistics, but by applying common sense and a good taste, developed after years of observations and harmonizations of hundreds of melodies. 

A colleague  said, "My own preference is to try to teach and theorize about what happens in actually existing repertoire". Well, the above examples are a part of what happens in actually existing repertoire. What percentage? Who cares - students must be given access to them and know how to explore those progressions. This will increase their vocabulary and keep their minds open. 

Best regards,


Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
School of Music
Texas State University
601 University Drive
San Marcos, Texas 78666

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