If we take a progression like i III VII iv, does the absence of a raised leading tone mean we arent in a minor key? Are progressions like these "modal" progressions?

  • In the words of Ted Greene, " key means the center " youtube.com/watch?v=rLPeB5GyMpI&t=685s Oct 15, 2021 at 9:29
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    How certain can we be of a minor tonic if the leading tone of that minor tonic isn't anywhere in the chord progression? Note that the stereotypical major-key chord progression vi-IV-I-V sounds just like i-VI-III-VII in the relative minor.
    – Dekkadeci
    Oct 15, 2021 at 12:42
  • Can someone explain the RN convention used by armani? E.g. in the context of conventions used here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_numeral_analysis#Diatonic_scales ? What chords are III and VII? Don't they both contain the leading tone?! Oct 15, 2021 at 19:05
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    @user1079505 I would argue that armani's use is the convention, and the Wikipedia article is a little out of convention. Typically, an accidental before the Roman numeral means altering the root of the chord from the key signature. In C minor, the mediant scale degree is E-flat, so that chord should be written as III, not as bIII (which would literally mean an E-doubleflat chord). This is admittedly a little pedantic, though; in context we simply know that bIII and III almost always mean the same thing.
    – Richard
    Oct 15, 2021 at 21:39
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    @armani Different people use the word "key" in different meanings in different situations. In the example I linked, Ted Greene used key to mean only the center. What is your usage here, what do you want to be able to do by categorizing something as being in a key or not in a key? What are you trying to do? Language is a tool that's used to DO something. What are you trying to accomplish. Oct 17, 2021 at 10:20

2 Answers 2


I only studied some classical theory but not medieval theory. Since you care about minor mode and chord progressions, I'll talk about the classical theory.

First of all, to establish a key in classical music, one needs to have reinforcing cadences. Composers may introduce additional notes to hint the key, but until enough reinforcement shows up, a key is ambiguous. So yes, i III VI iv alone doesn't give you a minor key.

You probably shouldn't even label the chords this way in the first place because you don't know what "key" it's in. It's just for communication so people know what kind of chords you're talking about.

As for whether they should be called "modal progressions", it really depends on what context you put them in. If you see a passage like this in classical music, and it never gives you any leading tone, it's probably just an ambiguous section, or part of a larger minor section. If it's an earlier music, well, you just don't label them with Roman numerals.


Yes, Aeolian - or Dorian - or Phrygian. All of which are minor modes - there is nothing that's a minor tonic - minor modes due to the m3 between tonic and 3rd.

The raised leading note came about centuries ago, mainly to make the V sound more like a dominant, leading to the tonic. It's not necessary to include it in any minor piece, it's just that it does get included, for reasons above.

Aeolian, Dorian and Phrygian may come under the 'minor key' banner for some, and under 'minor mode' for others. But a piece which uses A B C D E F and G only are certainly in minor modes, if not, for all, minor keys, all possessing the 'flattened' (or rather),'not raised' leading note. That aspect alone is not enough to prove something is 'in minor', in fact, it isn't even a criterion!

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    Slightly pedantic comment: the leading tone came about before the concept of the triad, so it precedes the notion of "V" by quite a bit.
    – Richard
    Oct 15, 2021 at 13:40
  • "Tonic" typically denotes a chord, which is typically denotes with the Roman numeral I or i, depending on whether the tonic chord is major or minor.
    – phoog
    Oct 16, 2021 at 22:00
  • @phoog - to me, at least, tonic is the name given to the first degree of a major or minor scale - the key-note. That will inevitably lead to a chord in a key, but I'm going to disagree that it 'typically' denotes a chord (I or i) over and above a single note. Maybe a question..?
    – Tim
    Oct 17, 2021 at 7:46
  • @Tim yes, it is the name given to the first degree of the major or minor scale, just as "dominant" is originally the name given to the fifth degree. In both cases, though, the name is also applied to the chord built on the corresponding degree, as are "mediant," "submediant," and "subdominant." See for example en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Scale_degrees_with_chords.png
    – phoog
    Oct 17, 2021 at 10:00

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