# Ambiguity of Roman numeral analysis of Andalusian cadence

When I write that the Andalusian cadence is the chord progression "Am – G – F – E" then there are no doubts in what it means. (All you need to know is what chords are and how they are named)

The definition is exact and everybody knows you can use instead, say, "A♯m - A♭ - F♯ - E♯" with the same harmonic progression effect (I intentionally used mixed sharps and flats that you would probably never use but it is still exact - everybody knows what chords to play).

On the other hand when roman numerals are used to describe the Andalusian cadence then you may find that the Andalusian cadence is:

iv – III – II – I

or

iv - III - ♭II - I

or

iv – ♭III – ♭II – I

or

i – VII – VI – V

or

i – ♭VII – ♭VI – V

So my question is what is the point of using roman numerals when in fact it tells you nothing about what harmony to use unless you are provided with additional information of what is meant by each degree of roman numerals? And this information is what actual chord to play instead of each degree. So you would save time just by providing the chords in the first place instead of any numerals.

The same ambiguity can be found in Roman numeral analysis. We can see:

So they defined that mediant is "♭III" (conventional notation) or "iii" (alternate notation). And then in just the next step they broke their own rules and used "III" as mediant - already a third version of how to label the mediant in a natural minor scale. The same applies for the submediant.

Isn't roman numeral notation just useless?

Since all that is necessary to unambiguously define harmony in the natural minor scale is this:

Cm - Ddim - E♭ - Fm - Gm - A♭ - B♭

which immediately is enough information to figure out that also this can be used (one of many):

Am - Bdim - C - Dm - Em - F - G

• The Wikipedia article is not necessarily correct. If it seems confusing to you, it might be because of the article, not because Roman numerals themselves are off. I’ve been taught in a minor key the median is just III. Neither iii nor bIII make sense for the minor mediant except for in jazz where bIII sort of makes sense. The mediant in a minor key is a major chord, so it should never be iii. Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 15:13
• It just shows that roman numerals notation is ambiguous - it is not universal. It depends on what you studied and where. On the other hand Am is universal. Am=ACE everywhere. Same way chord progression "Am – G – F – E" is universal. But using iv – III – II – I or i – ♭VII – ♭VI – V to describe Andalusian cadence is depended on what your music school was. PS: I do not think that the articles on Wikipedia were written by incompetent people. It just shows they went to different schools. Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 16:30
• There’s nothing stopping you nor I from writing articles on Wikipedia, so we can’t expect anyone putting stuff on Wikipedia to know more than we do. I very much doubt there is a school anywhere that describes a major chord with lower case Roman numerals. Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 16:55
• @azerbajdzan there are very poorly written articles on wikipediea and the music theory related ones tend to be pretty bad and mix up different schools of thought making them hard to parse for people that don't know the area of study. What's slightly more concerning is based on your comments to this question and the answers you have preconceived notion about Roman Numeral Analysis and you are using this question to push it. It like every system has pros and cons, but it's very very useful. As for ambiguity, have you seen how many different chord symbols there are?
– Dom
Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 17:03
• 'you can use instead, say, "A♯m - A♭ - F♯ - E♯"': onlee iff yu arre vairy tolirunt uv por spellng. Commented Dec 19, 2022 at 11:04

To add to or expand on Richard's answer: You're running into the distinction between analysis and practice. To get really basic: humans make music. They also put ink on paper to say things about that music. Sometimes the goal of this ink is to help them make music—notated pitches and rhythms help us recreate musical ideas. Sometimes the goal is to talk about the music or explain it.

Confusion can arise because some things, like chord names, roman numerals, and figured bass, are used at various times for both purposes, for making music and for analyzing it. Roman numerals are usually a tool of music theory, but I know a guitarist who worked in the Muscle Shoals studios during their heyday who says they would write out chord charts in Roman numerals rather than letter names so they could transpose at will. Figured bass is usually used today along with Roman numerals in harmonic analysis, but was used in performance in the baroque.

So today, a chord notation like "Am" is often used in performance—"Play some combination of the pitches A, C, and E." It can also be used in theoretical analysis (I often start by sketching these out before asking myself what's going on tonally). But "i" or "III" tell you something different; they tell you about the tonal function of the chord. This is where analysis really becomes analysis. You could have a given chord, a certain combination of pitches, and explain it in various ways, based on a big-picture view of what's going on: Is this a pivot chord because we're modulating? A "V of V" that tonicizes the dominant? A chord that is spelled one way but really works in another because of harmonic motion? (Like, in the key of Am, let's say you have an F chord, then an Am over E, then an E. The "Am over E" isn't really a iv in its own right; it's a suspension as we go from F to E.)

For a metaphor: say I find a large, flat stone. I could identify it objectively: "It's a large flat stone." But I could put it in front of my front door and say "it's a doorstep," or on top of some cabinets in the kitchen and say "it's a kitchen counter," or stand it on end, request to be buried in front of it, and say "it's a tombstone." All the time it's still a large, flat stone, but these roles help explain it, and tell us about the larger story.

Letter-name notation of chords tells you what to play, but without an understanding of the tonal context, it doesn't tell you the chord's "role" in the harmony. On the other hand, Roman numerals tell you about the chord's role, but unless you also know the current tonality, they don't actually tell you what to play!

• You wrote: "On the other hand, Roman numerals tell you about the chord's role". So what tells me iv – III – II – I and what tells me i – ♭VII – ♭VI – V? Really nothing because you do not even know what relation is between those degrees unless additional information is provided. Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 16:12
• @azerbajdzan By "role," I mean that "i" tells you "this is tonic." In language, we can use the same words in two different contexts and have different meanings: "I'm sorry" might mean "I apologize" or "I feel your sorrow" or "what did you say?". The roman numerals provide this context: there's a big difference in the musical "meanings" of iv-III-II-I vs i-VIII-VI-V (I wouldn't use those flats): one "brought us home," and now we have cadenced and are "settled." The other "started from home," and brought us to the dominant, where we are "unsettled." Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 16:46
• If I say you. Here you have chord progression "iv – III – II – I", play it for me. Start with Am. What would be the next three chords? Then here you have "i – ♭VII – ♭VI – V", play it for me, star again with Am. What would be next three chords? I am sure each musician would come up with different sequence of chords, because this notation is ambiguous if additional information is not given. But If I give you "Am – G – F – E" and play it for me but start on Cm instead of Am and preserve the same relations between chords everybody would play: "Cm - Bb - Ab - G". Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 16:56
• @azerbajdzan no. you get the same chords as the key is what matters. Am is vi in the key of C major and i in the key of A minor and iv in E major since the 3rd is lowered. If you don't understand that, you need go back and look at the basics of Roman Numeral analysis
– Dom
Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 17:06
• @azerbajdzan You seem to be focusing on a "performance use"—given some roman numerals, to know the chords. That can happen (my Muscle Shoals example), though it's not that common. More common is the opposite: given some chords, to decide on their roman numerals, as an act of analysis. Also: I'd be more likely to say "iv-III-II-I; play it for me in the key of E" than "start with Am." If I said "start with Am," I'm asking you to figure out "in what key is Am the iv chord?" Which I just did in my head just now to figure out "E", but it took quite a few seconds. Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 20:14

Isn't roman numeral notation just useless?

I don't believe so. Whereas strict chord labels (C, Dm, etc.) tell you exactly what chords to play, Roman-numeral notation can tell you:

• how these chords relate to an overall tonic,
• what tonic even is,
• what the functional role of these chords are within the current harmonic environment,
• all of this information in a more streamlined manner than "Dm7♭5, acting as a predominant",
• etc.

Furthermore, having a key-agnostic labeling system makes transposition far easier, since reading

I V7/iii iii IV V7/V V7 I

and performing it in all twelve keys is a far easier task than parsing out

E G♯7 C♯m A F♯7 B7 E

and transposing by a given interval.

As for whether an E♭-major chord in C minor is III or ♭III, I don't really think that's ambiguity, that's just sloppy work; the accidental preceding a Roman numeral lowers the root from the given key signature, so this chord should be III in C minor (not ♭III), but it would be ♭III in C major. (And, if I may: would someone actually confuse this with E♭♭ major?)

• The second bullet point is a strong enough argument for me! Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 15:35
• @Theodore: So tell me then what tonic is in Andalusian cadence??? If one tells the cadence is iv – III – II – I and another tells you it is i – ♭VII – ♭VI – V. That is the ambiguity of the notation I am talking about. Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 15:58
• @azerbajdzan But I would argue that's not ambiguity, that's sloppy labeling. Depending on the given use of the Andalusian cadence, one decides whether the first chord or the last is tonic. With that information, then one decides which set of Roman numerals to use. Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 16:02
• @azerbajdzan It depends on the composition and that is exactly the point. Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 16:02
• @azerbajdzan I didn't get into this yet, but as far as I know, only one of these examples can actually be considered the Andalusian cadence (the one that goes from i to V). The others might similar in their motion, but are not the "same cadence." Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 16:48

All the things you add to your question about "ambiguity" boil down to saying "I don't know what key I am in."

`Am – G – F – E`

When you identify the progression by name, and list those chords, unless you give some other reason to the contrary, the key is `A` minor, and then the Roman numeral analysis (RNA) is not at all ambiguous. It is...

`Am: i VII VI V`

If you don't specify the key signature in the RNA, as you should, or you're presenting RNA derived symbols in a pop/jazz context, then people often neglect to give the key signature, so the mode isn't specified, and so you need to use sharps/flats to ensure the correct chord roots are understood...

`i ♭VII ♭VI V`

Sharps and flats can be used along with a key label to show borrowed chords, but that is another matter.

The ambiguity of this particular point isn't about the RNA system, it's about failing to give the key label in RNA. `Am: VII` is not ambiguous, it's a chord rooted on the seventh scale degree of the key signature for `A` minor, which is `G` natural.

If you leave out the key label, and write just `i VII` or `i ♭VII`, will assume you mean play a root progression of a descending whole step, both chords are root position, the first one minor, the second one major, in any key. The first RNA is careless, the second makes me think you learned it in a pop/jazz setting, both strangely ambivalent about key when using an RNA systems that is based upon the idea of identifying chords withing keys!

The other examples that rotate all the chord identities through the various diatonic positions, like `iv – III – II – I`, just show an ignorance about what is the tonic. RNA is a system for analyzing tonal music, so disregard or ignorance for the tonic is just a fundamental error in musical understanding. It is not an ambiguity of RNA.

This one - `A♯m A♭ F♯ E♯` - displays an ignorance of both keys and the significance of enharmonic spellings. Again, those are fundamental musical misunderstandings of whoever would write that, not an ambiguity of RNA.

There is one aspect of Roman numeral analysis that is most definitely ambiguous, but the OP's example absolutely does not highlight it. The ambiguity is with the seventh scale degree in minor keys. In a minor key signature the seventh scale degree is a whole step below the tonic, and so not a proper leading tone, which is one half step below the tonic. Normally there is no accidental added to the Roman numeral to show the raising of the seventh degree to for a leading tone chord. If you add to that convention, the fact that some RNA systems don't specify chord quality by letter case, and some don't use `o` for diminished chords, you find RNA for the seventh scale degree is indeed ambiguous. `Am: VII` in some RNA is implicitly understood to mean a leading tone, diminished triad. Probably more common is `Am: viio`. But, you don't normally see `Am: ♯viio` or `Am: ♮viio`, which strictly speaking would be correct when accidentals are used to show roots altered from the key signature.

Given that your first 3 examples are probably not correct, as the last chord shown will not be tonic, those are out of the equation.

Of the last 2, both showing that i is tonic, and V is dominant - no argument there - i-VII-VI-V makes most sense, with particular regard to the relative minor of C major, A minor. I would have no problem translating that to the Andalusian sequence, which it portrays nicely. There's no need to travel into harmonic or melodic minor notes, just like there's no need to consider Dorian or Phrygian modes. With the obvious exception that to actually have a leading note, that note needs to be one semitone below the root, so merely using notes diatonic to C/Am won't work well. Although there are Andalusian sequences that I've heard using v rather than V.

By keeping it simple, with chords directly related to diatonic notes, it all works well, no need for any complications, as you seem to have discovered. So, RN would work just fine, thanks!

• Have you read the links in my OP? All the examples are from Wikipedia article, they are not mine. I guess the article was written by people who knows what Andalusian cadence is. Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 16:17
• Just because it's on the 'net doesn't make it gospel!
– Tim
Commented Dec 14, 2022 at 17:35
• @azerbajdzan "I guess the article was written by people who know what Andalusian cadence is": anyone can contribute to a Wikipedia article. They're mostly pretty good, but sometimes they include woefully incorrect information. Commented Dec 19, 2022 at 11:11
• @phoog: Same as here, dear phoog, same as here. Have I already said same as here? :-) Commented Dec 19, 2022 at 11:16
• @azerbajdzan true enough. This format, though, allows users to gauge quality of the information more easily, as well as to engage in a bit of back-and-forth with those answering the questions, so as to form their own opinions about others' assertions. With Wikipedia the best clue that something is correct is usually a citation of some other authoritative source, but unfortunately in academic matters such as music theory these are often copyright-protected publications that are not freely available online, and most of us are not going to go to a library to verify them. Commented Dec 19, 2022 at 12:29

The other answers are good and cover everything, but I wanted to add one to try and be crystal clear in highlighting what you are missing.

By default there is a SPECIFIC harmony to use for each degree in roman numeral analysis (RNA), unless specified otherwise. The harmony, ie. which chords each degree of the scale specifies, can be major or minor. In a minor key the RNA will place the tonic minor on the i, a major key will place the tonic major chord on the I. Note that in minor keys the existence of 'natural' and 'harmonic' minor versions could indeed introduce ambiguity on the quality of the vii scale degree, but rest of the RNA system is NOT ambiguous.

Roman numeral analysis expresses chord relations without NEEDING to specify a key (although saying/being clear it is of type major or minor should be a minimum), but a key must be chosen in order to play it. It is useful because it describes the harmony of a piece in a way that can be applied to any given tonic root.

For example, a popular jazz tune has chords;

ii, V, I, IV, vii, iii, vi

Knowing this piece expressed in RNA I can play it in any key very easily and without having to transpose. In fact, knowing songs in this way rather than explicit chords is highly recommended, and in certain genres (jazz, some pop) a required skill. I appreciate that may not be your goal, but for context.

If I learned a song in roman numeral analysis then I know it in every key immediately, I just centre the I chord around the given tonic and play the relationship. This is incredibly useful for both analysis and performance. Analysis cares not what the starting note is, more the complex relationship between notes. It helps us, a little like algebra, to look at the generalised relationship and behaviour of a system rather than one specific example.

Also, each chord in roman numeral analysis tells me the 7th quality of the chord, and the further upper extensions that are available, it is much more than just knowing which chords are major and which minor.

Expressing the Andalusian cadence in RNA using the minor tonic as i gives us i, VII, VI, V. You could also express that chord sequence against a major key as vi - V - IV - III7. The second way may be useful if that particular chord progression appears in a piece that otherwise can be considered to be in a major key.

RNA is incredibly useful, it can demystify complex sequences of harmony in a way that would be tricky to spot from a chord sequence alone, it gives us information about which chord extensions will sound most consonant, it allows us to change key with ease, it allows us to see compositional tools used across various sections, keys and pieces for comparison and greater understanding.

If you are familiar with programming, using chord symbols is like 'hard coding', very explicit and clear, but rigid and not that translatable. Using roman numeral analysis is learning to understand the dynamic system we are operating in. It means that sometimes there are not hard and fast rules, but an expert on the system will quickly recognise the patterns and could express how it would most likely be interpreted.

The examples given in the wikipedia article are not that useful, there is rarely cause to respell RNA against a modal root. It is perhaps of historical curiosity if you are comfortable with modal harmony and have a strong basis in RNA, but I can see how it could be very confusing. Once one is comfortable with using RNA and can see why the Andalusian cadence is usually going to be i VII VI V etc. then the counter examples in the wiki article become very easy to comprehend, not in danger of destabilising the use of RNA, but also of very limited use. Though perhaps they could inspire new compositions, any alternative viewpoint can be the basis for a new exploration. For this reason it's important not to regard theory as an absolute ruleset, to be adhered to at all times. However this doesn't mean that the well established systems we have are not very thorough and complete tools.

• You only confirmed that roman numerals are not universal. You are used to how jazz musicians use roman numerals - based on your music education and music genre you are engaged in. But I guarantee you if you and some professional flamenco player got the same progression in roman numeral without any additional information and you were told to play it in key C that you two would play completely different chord progressions. Not different in a sense like to play G instead of G7 were dominant should be played but in a sense that one would play, say, G and the other Gb in the same place. Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 11:47
• Other answers in this thread also disagree that vi - V - IV - III7 is the best/easiest (or even correct) way to express Andalusian cadence. Other answers suggest that the first chord should be "Im" i.e. tonic and the last chord should be V i.e. dominant. You do not even have any tonic in your progression and have V on a place that it even do not act like a dominant. Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 12:00
• Based on that on "iv – III – II – I" you would play "Am – G# – F# – E" I guess that on "iv – III – bII – I" you would play "Am – G# – F – E" but a flamenco player who takes everything in relation to Phrygian dominant would play on "iv – III – bII – I" the actual Andalusian cadence "Am – G – F – E". So you two would clash in one playing G# and the other playing G on the same roman numeral notation. But if you were given straight at the beginning to play "Am – G – F – E" you would have no problems to agree what to play. Because this is universal notation. Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 12:29
• @azerbajdzan I am keeping my roman numeral analysis entirely against a major key for ease, the tonic in my progression is the vi, which is the one chord in a minor key. To your second comment, I'm suggesting the same as the others. I guarantee you that if a professional flamenco player and I got the same progression we would establish a tonic in two words and then play the same chord sequence. You are correct that when translating between conventions using the explicit chord notation avoids all ambiguity. But chord naming is not universal either, it's also specific to a certain area of music. Commented Dec 15, 2022 at 12:39
• I didn't down vote, but this statement "...based on the diatonic major scale..." is not really true, and I updated my answer to address it. Roman numerals indicate scale degrees used for chord roots. I think that is the simplest way to say it. The scale may be major, but it also may be minor. And in minor the RNA for the seventh scale degree is a bit ambiguous, but definitely not simply based on a diatonic major scale. You might say the default RNA scale for minor is a harmonic minor scale. Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 14:14