I've been looking through answers related to Roman Numeral Notation and have seen similar items but I still don't understand what to do when a chord does not fit in the key. I thought I'd ask the question with a specific example.

EXAMPLE If the chords are

|A |A7 |D |Dm7 G7|

|A F#7|F E7|A D|A E7|

OPTION 1: Appears to be in the key of A:

|I |I7 |IV |iv7 ?|

|I vi7|? V7|I IV |I V7|.

The Dm7 can be notated as iv7 (key of A typically has a D major chord or IV). However both the F and G7 chords are not in the key of A at all – how can they be notated? My guess is F = bIII (where b = flat), G7 = #VI7

OPTION 2: Just in case it is better, try the key of D:

|V |V7 |I |i7 IV7|

|V II7 |? II7|V I |V II7|

The Dm7 can be notated as i7 (key of D typically has a D major chord or I). The E7 can be notated as II7 (key of D typically has an Em chord or ii). However the F is not in the key of D at all – how is this notated? My guess is F = bVI (b = flat)


2 Answers 2


The point of roman numeral analysis is to represent what certain chords "do" in the key, or how they functional (and it's often called "functional analysis'). If the music wasn't written to be functional (like a soundscape, early polyphony, or some modern music), it's not very helpful to analyze with functionality in mind. Some kinds of music are better analyzed using letter names, if the chord progressions are generally non-functional.

If you run into chords built on non-scale degrees, you can notate them using bX or #X. These are generally uncommon in "common practice" Western music, with a couple of exceptions - like the Neapolitan 6 or N6, built on the bII. The roman numerals are only modified if they are unexpected in the key - i.e. if they're built on something other than a scale degree. In the key of A major, and F chord would be a bVI, because F# is expected, but in a minor an F chord would just be a VI, because F(natural) is expected.

If you're just analyzing into roman numerals to aid in transposition, you can stop here - that's all you need. If you want to understand how and why the composer picked a particular chord, you can go much deeper into the composer's thoughts.

Be aware that roman numerals go by the spelled name, not any enharmonic equivalents, unless you have reason to believe the publisher didn't notate the music with the analysis in mind. So, for example, an E# chord in the key of A would be a #V, not a bVI. Usually composers are aware of how their chords function and publishers also analyze music before typesetting it.

A final thing to bear in mind is that x7 chords that don't belong in the key are often Secondary Dominants, or chords that are borrowed from another key. These are usually notated as either V7/x or vii/x where x is the key their borrowed from relative to the root. The most common is the V7/V, or "five-seven of five", which is not a borg designation but rather the five chord borrowed from the key of the five chord. In the key of A this would be a B7 chord. So before you start labeling II7s in a major key, realize they're probably V7/V.

The borrowed Secondary Dominant chords "stand in" for the chord they're borrowed from, and often, but not always, set up and resolve to that chord.

Here's your example using a plausible borrowed chord:

| A | A7 | D | Dm7 G7 |

| I | I7 | IV| ii7/III V/III|

| A F#7 | F E7 | A D | A E7 |

| I VI7 | bVI V7 | I IV| I V7 |

or N/V V7

If you don't see any way for a chord to be borrowed, look for non-chord tones. Sometimes the chord can be disguised by the inclusion of a note that is outside of the chord. You'll see notes leading to and from the suspect pitch in a melody or counter-melody.

Sometimes there is more than one way to analyze a particular chord, in that case, look at how it resolves and pick the analysis that best explains the resolution.

  • My purpose of posing the question was as you noted a guide to transposition and also understanding song chord structure and solo creation.
    – Robert W
    Apr 12, 2016 at 0:09
  • 2
    The G7 chord is not a V/iv (the latter would simply be an A chord, which is the V of IV or iv). The G7 chord in A is often called a bVII7, but you can also analyze the combination Dm7 G7 as a II-V in C (which is the relative major of the parallel minor of A).
    – Matt L.
    Apr 12, 2016 at 8:16
  • @MattL. - good point. This occurs often in pop music, and is usually seen as a chord from the parallel key, or even a substitute for the viio.
    – Tim
    Apr 14, 2016 at 6:33

It's what I use. In key A, though, G will be bVII rather than #VI as you suggest, as G# is the normal VII in A, so flattening G# makes the Roman numeral bVII.


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