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Say I'm playing a song in C Minor, and I play the chords

Cm, B♭, A♭, G

If I was talking about, or analyzing these chords using roman numerals, which way is more correct to refer to them?

i, VII, VI, V

(because B♭ is the 7th step of the C minor scale, etc.)

or

i, ♭VII, ♭VI, V

(because when talking about chord numbers, you assume that the numbers refer to degrees of the major scale, so a VII would refer to a B natural major)

  • What style of music are you involved in? I think "standard practice" might differ, say between classical and jazz musicians for instance. I would use which ever method your peers use. – ibonyun Nov 1 at 6:09
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You need to know which convention is being used, because there are more than one.

One system simply uses upper case Roman numerals to indicate scale degrees with no reference to chord quality or scale type.

For systems that use sharps and flats the basic idea is they alter the referenced scale degree from some prevailing default.

In jazz and pop that default is a diatonic major scale. In the key of C - assumed major - the sixth scale degree is A natural and the diatonic triad built on it is a minor chord. The Roman numeral for it is: vi. If you want to indicate the sixth degree and diatonic triad from minor, you use a flat to show the scale degree is lowered from the major scale degree to A flat and use upper case to show the chord quality is major: bVI.

In 'classical' analysis it works differently. You indicate the key before writing the Roman numerals: Cm:. Then the Roman numerals assume what is diatonic for that key signature. In C minor the sixth degree and it's diatonic triad are A flat and a major triad by default - because of the key signature - no alterations are made, so no accidentals are added to the Roman numerals. Cm: VI means a major triad built on the sixth degree in C minor which is A flat. On the other hand, if the key was major: C: and an A flat major chord was played, it involves a chromatic alteration from the key signature which is applied to the Roman numeral: C: bVI. That's called a borrowed chord. A flat major was "borrowed" from C minor.

i, VII, VI, V

(because B♭ is the 7th step of the C minor scale, etc.)

I think if you write: Cm: i, VII, VI, V, it will be perfectly clear you mean 'Cm, B♭, A♭, G'.

Without indicating the key - i, VII, VI, V- could be interpreted as Cm B A G. Realistically, people familiar with various systems will assume you meant Cm: i VII VI V or i, ♭VII, ♭VI, V. But why not write it clearly one way or the other?

  • But i not I for the minor tonic triad? Why this anomaly? – Laurence Payne Nov 1 at 20:41
  • Do you mean why doesn't Cm: I mean a minor chord by default considering the key signature is given? I don't know the reason, but chord quality is always indicated by letter case, and symbols like + for augmented and o for diminished triads. It does seem a little arbitrary. (I'm thinking of the system used in Kostka/Payne textbook.) – Michael Curtis Nov 1 at 21:08
  • @MichaelCurtis: It's worth noting that the older convention (dating to the early 19th century) is to use all-caps Roman numerals exclusively. Whether a chord was major or minor could be determined from context and local key. This convention is still used by many music theorists (particularly those closer to Schenkerian roots), but it's more rarely seen at the undergraduate level or in popular sources these days. The use of lowercase RN for minor dates to the late 19th century and followed earlier use of lowercase letters to indicate minor keys and chords (e.g., A = A major, a = A minor). – Athanasius Nov 2 at 5:14
  • In general, I think the mixed case RN notation became more common in undergrad theory textbooks maybe 50-60 years ago. Before that, you'd still see all-caps RN in many standard introductory sources. Now it's rare in that context. However, some jazz and pop harmony sources occasionally still use an all-caps notation too, indicating chord quality with standard chord symbols (m or - for minor, etc.), so a minor tonic chord could be Im or I-. – Athanasius Nov 2 at 5:20
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The first is correct: i VII VI V. Just make sure you clearly indicate that you're analyzing the passage as being in C minor. The context takes care of the rest.

If, for argument's sake, the passage was otherwise in C major but those same Bb and Ab chords came up, then you would mark them as being flat: bVII bVI.

Source: Tonal Harmony 5th Edition by Kostka & Payne

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There are varying opinions on this But I think we have to keep numeral notation absolute, same as letter notation. Music doesn't stay neatly in one key or mode. It's bad enough having to establish where the tonic is at any time, without having to state whether you're numbering according to major, harmonic minor, melodic minor, natural minor, Dorian..

In a C-based key, C major is I, C minor is i. D major is II, D minor is ii. Ab major is ♭VI, Ab minor is ♭vi. Any other system leads to madness.

  • "It's bad enough having to establish where the tonic is at any time, without having to state whether youre numbering according to major harmonic minor, melodic minor, natura minor, Dorian.." How often are you doing RN analysis on modal pieces though? Maybe in jazz? In which case, maybe you're right that that's the preferred method. But in the classical world you're almost always dealing with either major or minor mode. And if you're doing RN analysis, you're obviously going to be indicating which key you're in. Marking VI as bVI in minor is simply redundant. – ibonyun Nov 1 at 6:16
  • In jazz, certainly. Or in a Bach chorale. Music has always been more diverse than some textbooks are happy with! – Laurence Payne Nov 1 at 12:36
  • That's because (some of?) Bach chorales were based on old plain chant melodies. I'd consider that an edge case. 99.9% of classical music is either major or minor. – ibonyun Nov 1 at 16:55
  • But which of the three (main) minor modes - natural, harmonic, melodic? And if the minor key tonic is I, what do we call a tierce de Picardie? We have a naming scheme available that takes account of all these. Why not use it? – Laurence Payne Nov 1 at 17:16
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    You're looking for problems where none exist. RE natural vs harmonic vs melodic: Harmonic and melodic are simply the names used to describe how certain notes are commonly altered in the minor mode (by borrowing from the major mode). Classical musicians don't use them separately. You don't write a piece in melodic minor. You write a piece in minor, and if you raise the 6 and 7 for an ascending melody or raise the 7 for a dominant chord, those would be described as making use of melodic and harmonic minor, respectively. But it's all just minor mode. You're never in just one or the other. – ibonyun Nov 1 at 20:26

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