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This is one thing that has always bothered me, why are VI and bVI 2 different chords in major but the same chord in minor? That makes no sense to me. I mean it does but it also doesn't. If you view major as the one and only true scale used and that the rest are just rotations of that scale or to put it in musical terms, modes, then yeah, Ab major in C minor would be labeled as bVI. I however rarely ever come across situations where minor is being used modally outside of Renaissance.

Even in the Baroque, the only "modal minor" I see used is Dorian, which I realized when I saw 2 separate scores by Bach with the name Toccata and Fugue in D minor, where one was in D Aeolian(the very well known one) and the other was in D Dorian(which, I notice a resemblance between the Dorian Toccata and the subject of the Aeolian Fugue, whereas the Dorian Fugue more closely resembles Fugue in C minor WTC Book I). Phrygian, another close modal relative of Aeolian, I just don't see outside of Modern where it's often altered to Phrygian Dominant, and Renaissance.

As soon as I get to Classical and Romantic Eras, minor and major become distinct in everything, not just the harmony, but the way the harmony is treated. As an example, take vii°7. In Major, I typically see this used in 1 of 2 ways, those being modulation to minor and as an extension of the dominant zone(V7 -> vii°7 -> I for example). Whereas in Minor, I often see vii°7 being used as the one and only dominant chord in a phrase, especially in Beethoven.

This is why I a) always mark major or minor in my harmonic analyses and b) don't think that bVI in minor should be the same as bVI in major. I mean this is my instinct for bVI, VI, and #VI in major and minor:

  • bVI in Major -> Borrowed from parallel minor, so in C major, it would be Ab major
  • VI in Major -> Major chord on the diatonic submediant note, so in C major, it would be A major
  • #VI in Major -> Unusual way of spelling bVII, but it would make sense if for example it's a chromatic mediant to analyse it as #VI
  • bVI in Minor -> Equivalent to the diatonic V chord, but again, only in situations like chromatic mediants, where I would want to emphasize the third relation and not imply that it is a dominant chord would I do this(example, G major shows up in a C minor passage after Eb major and it comes back to that same Eb major without going to C minor first, but ultimately doesn't modulate away from C minor through the passage, the G major is treated as a Chromatic mediant of Eb and not as the dominant of Cm, so I would be happy labeling it as bVI to get the function across)
  • VI in Minor -> Diatonic submediant chord, no need for the flat in the roman numeral
  • #VI in Minor -> Major chord on the sharpened submediant, so in C minor, it would be A major

Now in practice, I find it rare that Chromatic mediants are used outside of modulation in Classical and Romantic era pieces, especially when it isn't a chromatic mediant of the tonic, and so the only ones on this list that I would see with relative frequency are bVI and VI in major and VI and #VI in minor.

But to get back to what I was asking about, why is it that bVI and VI in minor seem to be interchangeable when the bVI only really makes sense in the "Minor as a mode of Major" type of analysis as it would mean something totally different in the "Minor as a distinct scale" type of analysis(which is what I myself use as for reasons stated above, Minor tends to be treated totally different from Major in terms of the harmonic motions), namely a chromatic mediant chord that sounds the same as the dominant triad but is not used like a dominant chord and is not in a modulating passage? I mean, even amongst analyses that treat minor and major as distinct scales, I still see bVI being used equivalently to VI which makes no sense in that kind of analysis. But only in minor, in major they are distinct in all analyses.

  • V-III is [weak] dominant-tonic motion, mislabelling it ♭VI-III most certainly does not better convey the function. – Peter Smith Oct 22 '20 at 4:11
  • I did say that the bVI in minor and #VI in major would only make sense with chromatic mediants. And Eb -> G -> Eb certainly is a chromatic mediant relation with the G not really acting as the dominant of C minor, even if ultimately the passage doesn’t modulate away from C minor. – Caters Oct 22 '20 at 4:16
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    "If you view major as the one and only true scale used and that the rest are just rotations of that scale or to put it in musical terms, modes"... Doesn't work this way. This is a reduction created centuries after the "system" emerged. You can handle modes as rotations, but you need to treat each different mode (authentic, plagal, ethnic or synthetic) as a different sonic space - roughly like different neighborhoods within the same city. Some "modes" are compound, they are constructed using more than one scale to achieve its sound - minor keys, for example. – Rodrigo B. Furman Oct 22 '20 at 18:25
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There are differing conventions. I learned to use lower-case vi for the 6-chord in major and upper-case VI for the 6-chord in minor. The argument for including the flat-sign is to make clear the interval above the tonic. So it depends on whether you're using the Roman numeral to indicate scale degree or interval.

The convention I was taught included using bVI when a major key borrowed from minor and nat-vi when a minor key borrowed from major.

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C to E♭ is a minor 3rd regardless of context. Whether it's 1- ♭3 in C major or 1 - , well, WHAT shall we call it in C minor? '3'? '♭3'?

I suggest '♭3' is the only useful choicde. And the same for chord labels.

Outside a textbook exercise, music DOESN'T stick neatly in one mode. It might not even stick to one tonic for long! But if we do establish C as tonic, we need labels for the chords E, Em, E♭, E♭m (and many more). And the only unambiguous ones are III, iii, ♭III, ♭iii. And what's V in C minor? G or Gm? Both are common. So we'd better call them V and v.

However, you will see the other method being used. Beware, and be sure to make it quite clear which system YOU are using.

(Or, if you're at school, do it the way your professor prefers. There's no point in being right when your professor's wrong.)

  • Minor dominant common? Maybe in modern music, but in classical music from the Renaissance to early Romantic era, I basically see the minor dominant used in only 2 circumstances, those being modulation and descending bass progressions(the latter explains the appearance of the minor dominant in the Pathetique Sonata). I never see it used for dominant function outside of modern music. As for that parallel mode switching(C -> Cm I find most common), I always address it in my analyses like any pivot chord modulation, finding the chord that bridges the 2 modes and saying it moves to the mode there. – Caters Oct 24 '20 at 17:13
  • That is, unless it is a direct switch(C minor chord right into a C major chord for instance as occurs in the Scherzo of Beethoven's Piano Sonata in C major op. 2 no. 3(more specifically the B section of the Scherzo section, where it's mostly in C minor until it switches from a C minor chord to a C major chord), in which case I say it moves to the mode right where the switch happens, right where the chord changes qualities from minor to major or vice versa. – Caters Oct 24 '20 at 17:22

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