On the Wikipedia entry for Roman numeral analysis, it says that major chords use the upper case numerals (e.g. IV for the F major chord in the C major scale) and lowercase letters for minor chords (e.g. vi for the A minor chord in the C major scale), but how about suspended chords? Since the 3rd is missing, the chord is no longer major or minor, so I'm wondering what is the convention used in this case?

  • Hey @xdl, I think some of these answers are a little misleading. If you are asking about traditional Roman numeral analysis, as you would do in a basic harmony or music theory class, take a look at my answer below. Let me know if you have any questions.
    – Casey Rule
    Dec 10 '14 at 16:48
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    Thanks Casey! Your answer was really informative. For context, I was setting some pop music and came across a suspended chord (that would have resolved to be minor)
    – xdl
    Dec 10 '14 at 23:03

Typically, in traditional classical music, non-harmonic tones like suspensions are not indicated in the Roman numeral analysis. You would simply notate the numeral and inversion for the chord to which you are resolving.

Here's an example:


In jazz and pop music, on the other hand, you may find the chord analyzed as IVsus or IVsus4, for instance. This is because in jazz and pop, notes that were traditionally considered to be non-harmonic in classical music are now considered to be part of the chord, and chord inversion is generally seen as less fundamental to the harmony.

Occassionally, you will see a conflation of figured bass and Roman numeral analysis that looks like this: http://www.sfcmtheory.com/harmony_supplements/chap_21.htm, but it is more typical with classical analysis to indicate non-harmonics independently of the Roman numeral analysis, as shown in the above example.

By the way, the wikipedia entry for Roman Numberal Analysis is somewhat inaccurate. I wouldn't rely on that as a source.

  • Actually, this is incorrect. Movement tones are notated using figured bass. Dec 10 '14 at 3:52
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    Yes, they are notated in the figured bass, not the roman numeral analysis.
    – Casey Rule
    Dec 10 '14 at 3:55
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    figured bass can be used as a part of roman numeral analysis to show functions of lines; specifically relating to non-harmonic tones. Dec 10 '14 at 3:57
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    Yes, but the question was specifically about how to handle the roman numerals. Traditional roman numeral analysis does not indicate non-harmonics
    – Casey Rule
    Dec 10 '14 at 4:13
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    No need to argue—I think you are just misunderstanding the question. Figured bass and Roman numeral analysis are two different, albeit related, forms of notation. Roman numeral analysis is traditionally concerned with the function of the harmony; non-harmonics are notated separately. (Source: I've taught classes on harmony and basic music theory.)
    – Casey Rule
    Dec 10 '14 at 17:18

If I'm not mistaken, the way to symbolize this is: IVsus or IVsus4 (or IVsus4).

(Usually, when you see a IVsus chord, it refers to a sus4 chord, but not everyone writes it this way).

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    Here is a doc showing it in a little more depth: personal.kent.edu/~sbirch/Theory/21341%20CMT/Assignments/…
    – Dom
    Dec 9 '14 at 23:46
  • Thanks! Although is the reason for using uppercase letters because the fourth chord in C major was originally major? For example, would sus4 of A minor be visus4 or VIsus4?
    – xdl
    Dec 9 '14 at 23:51
  • "sus4 of A minor" is a contradiction in terms - a chord would be minor, or it would be 'sus4', but not both. The only real ambiguity I can imagine would be on the seventh, but since in jazz chord notation this is assumed to be flatted (mixolydian) it's not really ambiguous - however, in Jazz notation the roman numerals themselves don't get used. And, anyway, if the 6 is supposed to be flatted that is usually explicit (same with if the 7 is not), so I'd imagine "iv sus4 b6" or "IV sus4 n7" if it was anything other than "sus4" (major 6, minor 7). Dec 10 '14 at 2:43
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    @DarrenRinger It's not a contradiction. If you had an Asus4 in the key of C major it's not like you need to guess what the 3rd of the chord would have been even though it is suspended. You would still note that it naturally occurs as a minor chord even though it is not functioning in that sense. I.E. you would use vi sus4 instead of VI sus4 because of how chords are built off a root of A in C major.
    – Dom
    Dec 10 '14 at 3:10
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    I'm not sure why this is up-voted - it is incorrect. If the harmony is functional, it is notated with figured bass. If it is non-functional, it is treated as quintal/quartal harmony and Roman Numeral analysis is no longer appropriate; therefore being notated using a different system. Dec 10 '14 at 3:56

In my music theory class in college, a suspended chord was written with its resolution, e.g. I⁴⁻³. We didn't get to the point of unresolved suspended chords, as used in jazz.

  • Does your example then show that it resolves to a minor, as there is a minus sign?
    – Tim
    Dec 10 '14 at 8:05
  • By default, it resolves in the tonality. The "-" sign just shows the resolution from the 4th to the 3rd.
    – kurto
    Dec 10 '14 at 9:14
  • It seems superfluous - a sus will generally (except in jazz!) resolve to a third.Whether it's a sus 2 or a sus 4.
    – Tim
    Dec 10 '14 at 12:38
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    @Tim - the movement shows the function of the line. Since the "4" is not a chord tone, people want to see what happens to it / how you get to the chord tone. Also, a "sus2" is really just a "sus4" in inversion, so the analysis would still be the same. The only difference here being that a suspended 2nd might resolve to unison, in which case the process is the same - only the numbers change. Dec 10 '14 at 13:16
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    It is not a "minus" sign, it represents an horizontal bar placed below the notes. The bar can last for several notes/quarter notes, see for example the exhibit 4 here : sfcmtheory.com/harmony_supplements/chap_21.htm
    – kurto
    Dec 10 '14 at 16:16

For roman numeral, you have to spell it out completely. like a V64 chord. V52 is your sus2. V54 is your sus 4.

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