So, I'm doing another Beethoven analysis, this time using the Liszt transcription of Beethoven's Fifth so that I can more easily see the harmonies and form. I am analyzing it passage by passage, first for the harmonies, and then for the form. I know, Beethoven's Fifth has been analyzed many times before. But most analyses I see of this symphony focus on how every movement is based on the Fate Motif rhythmically and/or melodically, how the Fate Motif is the one thing uniting all the movements, Beethoven's orchestration choices, and how from the first movement to the third movement, the C major finale is foreshadowed.

I rarely see a harmonic analysis of it and even more rarely do I see a formal analysis of this piece that goes into the phrasing and cadences. I'm focusing on the harmony and form of the piece. I thought the harmonies would be relatively simple to analyze. But early on, before I even reach the second theme, I am unsure how to analyze this passage circled in red:

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I see two harmonies coexisting here, vii°7 and V7, with brief glimpses of the C minor tonic separating the 2 phrases from each other and from the next phrase. This and the way it is written makes me unsure how to analyze this passage.

Analyzing as vii°7

This works very well for the first 3 measures of the passage, where Beethoven is arpeggiating vii°7 using the Fate Motif. However, this means analyzing the G as a pedal point in the next measure, which I'm pretty sure isn't correct.

Analyzing as V7

This works better for the fourth measure of the passage, because the G isn't a pedal point here, unlike the C several measures later which is a pedal point. But then, what is the Ab in the first measure of the passage doing? It can't be a suspension, because it doesn't resolve anywhere, it simply leaps down a third to F. If I were to treat it as a suspension, it would have to be a 9-8 suspension without the resolution note G, which just does not sound right. Would it be an unprepared appogiatura? Would it be part of the F minor harmony right before this passage? The Ab in the third measure of the passage though is clearly a re-articulated 9-8 suspension if you analyze the harmony as V7.

You see what I mean? V7 makes total sense for the second, third, and fourth measures of the passage. vii°7 makes total sense for the first, second, and third measures of the passage. They each have 1 measure where a certain note that would have to be a non-chord tone doesn't make sense with the harmony and melody combined. For vii°7, that is G as a pedal point. For V7, that is the first Ab being a 9-8 suspension without the resolution note.

So, if each of the coexisting harmonies have 1 measure where a non-chord tone doesn't make sense with the harmony and melody combined and have 2 measures of overlap where both harmonies make sense, how should I analyze the harmony in this passage? As vii°7 to match with the arpeggiation? As V7 to match with the fourth measure of the passage? As vii°7 in the first 3 measures followed by V7 in the fourth measure?

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    Is there a reason (a) why it can't be viewed as transitioning from one dominant function chord to another (something that frequently happens) or (b) just be viewed as a Vb9 chord overall? Why do we need to choose?
    – Athanasius
    Commented Dec 11, 2019 at 18:41
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    But then, if it is viewed as a transition from vii°7 to V7, where would it be transitioning from vii°7 to V7? The second measure of the passage? The third measure of the passage?
    – Caters
    Commented Dec 11, 2019 at 19:25
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    Doublecheck the measure before the fermata. That's an A-flat in the bass!
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 2:28
  • @Richard: What do yo mean with this hint exactly? The most interesting point in this passage is the unisono fortissimo. I doubt that iv is correct. I’d rather say this is already anticipating the following phrase in the dominant function and I agree with others this can be assembled and reduced to V79. Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 19:04
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    @AlbrechtHügli The third measure of the excerpt is an Italian augmented-sixth chord on account of the A-flat in the bass. OP's analysis, viio7/V, suggests that they read an A-natural there.
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 19:06

5 Answers 5


In bars 5 - 7 of your excerpt, an excursion to F minor is implied. But in bar 8 et seq. the Ab and F are re-assigned as the top two notes of G7b9, the dominant of C minor (and Beethoven's favourite diminished 7th chord with a root note added to pin down WHICH of the four possible dominants it's being this time!) which is reached in bar 12 and strongly reinforced in the following bars. No, we're not off on a journey to distant keys, Beethoven hasn't yet finished pounding C minor into our hearts!

The basic problem seems to be that a dom7(b9) chord wasn't in your musical vocabulary. It should be. (And it is, now :-) ) It isn't a modern, 'jazz harmony' thing. It's very classical, very Beethovenian, and integral to his liking for dim7 chords.

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    Thanks for pointing out the motif on F minor is an implied move to a new key that isn't fulfilled. That is the interesting part to me. The part I thought could be easily misunderstood. Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 13:52
  • I fully agree with AbF as part of V7b9. That’s what I meant to say too, but I was not so clear in my answer. ;) Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 19:18

I don't know if there is a typical way the passage is analyzed, but I agree with @Athanasius: just label it Vb9.

There is a theoretical view that diminished seventh chords are incomplete dominant ninth chords where the root is omitted. From that point of view viio7 V7 just divides the ninth chord and literally writes out the two halves.

It's perfectly clear that it resolves to the C minor chord and so whether you label a single ninth chord, or two chords - diminished seventh followed by a dominant seventh - the function is dominant. That's what is important.

I think I prefer the ninth chord, because the passage moves with a constant descent like an arpeggiation. And I like analysis that simplifies without loosing the essentials. The simple dominant to tonic labeling is Vb9 i.

The only other thing that seems worth mentioning is the Ab doesn't literally resolve to G in the first iteration.

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    Um, what do you mean the Ab doesn't literally resolve to G in the first iteration? The Ab in the left hand of the third measure of the passage that I circled is one scale step up from the G in the right hand in the fourth measure of that same passage.
    – Caters
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 1:06
  • @Caters, I was speaking about the Ab4 - the very first one of the descent - it doesn't step down to G. But really it's about all the Abs, when the lower Ab moves to G it isn't moving to another chord, so where is the resolution? I suppose you could call it passing motion. All of this is just icing on the cake. It's a dominant chord rooted on G resolving to a C minor chord. It's a harmonic thing that doesn't require more analysis than that. There isn't really a counterpoint thing going on to necessitate discussion of voice movements, suspensions, etc. Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 13:45
  • @Michael: I’m only reading your answer right know. I can see that I haven’t brought any new aspects +1 Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 21:05

I'll just throw my two cents in, for what it's worth. And I will apologize for the tone of the following, because to me, a distinction like this is not generally very helpful in bringing out new musical understanding. It's seeking a type of rigor in classification that is often not possible in analyzing art.

To me, analysis should be about telling us something about how the music works. Perhaps it tells us something about how the music is composed. If that's the goal here, it's pretty unlikely Beethoven was thinking in Roman numerals, so arguing about this distinction isn't going to help us understand the compositional process.

Another goal might be to understand how a listener perceives the music. If I were listening to this piece for the first time, I think it makes most sense to hear the A♭-F after the fermata as a repetition of the previous motive before the fermata, which does perhaps create some implication of F minor. Maybe. Or maybe not. It's odd, because it comes right after that strong dominant, so it all sounds a bit "off." (Strong half cadences are not frequently followed by naked subdominant chords.) Maybe the A♭ and F are meant to be felt with some tension with the preceding dominant? Hmm...

Still, maybe it's F minor, but there's some tension there. Maybe it's D-flat major, since after all, the opening motive to this piece was scale degree 5 descending to 3 with a major third. Maybe Beethoven wants to move toward the Neapolitan? Wouldn't that be interesting! Or, well, maybe it's boring old F minor after all. We'll have to wait and see. Music is a temporal art, so that's part of what happens as your interpretation has to unfold in time as your experience with the piece increases...

So when the A♭-F motive adds the D, maybe it is a predominant function again after all... a iv turning into a iio, maybe? It's certainly not that possible Neapolitan move. Too bad...

But, oh! The next bar brings the B♮ -- the leading tone that creates a tritone interval and turns this into a dominant function harmony! Yet the A♭ returns in the "tenor" voice, this time resolving as a ♭9 should down to G, the strong dominant root that is confirmed with the entrance of G in the bass. That V7 then resolves appropriately to tonic.

Now, when I hear this passage repeated, there are more interpretations open. Maybe I am suckered into the possibility of a predominant iv-iio possibility again, turning into viio and then V, but "fool me once, fool me twice..."?? So maybe the second time instead I might hear this whole thing as one continuous descending V♭9... or at least an overall dominant function chord.

The preceding type of experiential analysis (in the past five paragraphs) is to me ten times more useful than putting a single label on a chord, as it tries to get at how it feels to actually listen to the piece and try to figure out what's going on, what's going to happen, how things relate to what came before, etc.

A third possible type of analysis is what I think of as the "god's eye view" analysis, where one stares at the score and tries to group notes together for some generally unstated purpose, like an analysis assignment for an intro theory class. There's no real concern with how the music is put together or how it functions or what a listener might perceive -- just an obsession with classification for classification's sake, and labeling for labeling's sake. I don't find such exercises particularly useful or musical, so if that sort of label is desired here just to settle the "name" of the chord, just choose some arbitrary system of rules to break the tie and slap the label on.

(And, for the record, what I imagine most Roman numeral-y textbooks would say is that the place the harmony becomes clear is the last measure of the first line of the excerpt, where you have the notes of some sort of viio7, which then turns into a V7 in the next bar when the A♭ moves down to G.)


Really, it doesn't matter in the context of the rest of your analysis.

Out of the 9 chord markings I would only consider 4 of them correct. The rest demonstrate that you don't understand the concepts of inessential notes, suspensions, and anticipations.

And there is one gross error, where you apparently didn't notice the difference between A natural and A flat.

FWIW I would call it V7. The A flats aren't a chord tone at all. But it would take at least a chapter of a textbook (if not the whole textbook) to try and correct your wrong thinking over all of this.

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    There are no A naturals until towards the end of the first theme, or at least, not in the section of the first theme that is in my post. You must be confusing the B naturals with A naturals. First chord I marked? Clearly V7. Chords in the half cadence? Clearly i, vii°7/V, V. Last 3 chords I marked? Clearly i, ii halfdim 7, vii°7 with a pedal C. If anything, you are the one whose thinking is wrong.
    – Caters
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 0:59
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    @Caters - "Guest" is talking about the augmented sixth chord you mislabeled as viio/V by mistaking an A-flat for an A-natural.
    – Athanasius
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 1:27
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    Oh, I see it now. It's an Italian augmented sixth with the root of Ab.
    – Caters
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 1:37

This is what happens all the time in chord progressions like this iv-ii-vii°-V (V7b9): falling 3rds, a common third in 2 chords. We know it from Bachs Piano Concertos and many other pieces, same situation in C-Am-F-Dm (e.g. Invention 13).

As others already wonder: We don't have to decide whether something is a vii dim or V7 or V7b9. The relationship is clear: functional they are dominant or dominant substitutions. First you might see a subdominant iv-ii°- vii°-V7 but I hear a broken chord G7b9.

The first fermata is G ... and it continues unisono Ab -> F. You say F minor(=iv) Nobody can forbid me to hear this already as the 9th and 7th of G7(b9) ...

Quite different would be the Smphony's opening motif: mimimi do. Is it major or minor. We can only guess that in the context it must be minor (and the key signature of course, if we can see it...)

  • I hear a very clear i-V7 motion in the opening statement of the motif. It doesn't just imply Cm-G7, it is Cm-G7.
    – Caters
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 18:15
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    Me too, of course, but only as we know the context and we know it’s cm. Otherwise it could be as well Eb and Bb Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 18:49
  • @AlbrechtHügli: I agree completely with your comment. If we didn't know the symphony at all, the opening few notes could easily be heard as in Eb major. In fact, one could imagine the second theme of the movement beginning with the same G-Eb gesture (instead of the Bb-Eb leap Beethoven uses). For all we know after the first few bars, we could be in Eb major. It's only later that subsequent context retrospectively allows us to surmise that the opening bars imply Cm-G7.
    – Athanasius
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 20:07
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    I don't think many people would immediately hear the dramatically stated Ab-F version of the main motif as the top of a b9 chord. The twist is in it BECOMING that.
    – Laurence
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 20:19
  • @ Lawrence: but it would be quite exceptional a subdominant after the fermata on the V. anyway, we can develop the intention after the resolving broken V79. Play it the AbF bar accompanied with ii7-5, this would also fit with our expections. But iv? A little bit strange. Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 20:59

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