How And Why Do We Use Roman Numeral Notation For Chords?

Tommaso Zillio

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roman numerals music

Sometimes I wonder if music theorists were trying to make life harder for us musicians… when their job should have been to make our life easier…

… I mean, there are several ideas in music theory that totally clarify what we play and why we play it… and rather than presenting this in a simple, understandable way, music theorists go out of their way to make it harder and more meeesteeeerious (wiggle fingers)…

… Case in point: roman numerals.

Have you ever seen chords written out in roman numerals? Something kind of like this:

I IV vi V

First of all - and very few people know that - there are TWO ways to write chord progressions in roman numerals… and people who use one way think that the people who use the other way are complete morons.

… and yet both sides have a good point, as you will see in the video below!

At this point, you can reasonably ask: “But Tommaso, why does writing chords in roman numerals (instead of just actually writing the chords) seem just like made-up music theory jargon that musicians use to seem more intelligent and sophisticated?”

Well, because it is :-)

… Alright, just kidding (*) There is a little more to it.

(*) After all, everything in music theory is made-up jargon. The real question is if that jargon helps us or not to make sense of music!

Roman numerals are used as a shorthand so chord progressions can be written quicker. More quick? Quickly… er. More quickly-er. Yeah, that sounds right.

“But why do I need to write chord progressions so quickly? Am I late for something?"

Yes, yes you are late for something, and that something is watching the video below, where I will tell you exactly why this shorthand works great for us musicians and cover a few common questions that many people have regarding roman numerals.

Now that you’ve watched this video and you know how to write out chord progressions, maybe the problem is actually finding the right chords for your song? Look no further! Check out this free eBook that shows you how to find the right chords for your song

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Video Transcription

Hello, internet; so nice to see you! I have a great question I want to answer today.

So the first question, does that mean that you should not have to use zero or plus for diminished slash augmented chords, since that would also work universally for all modes?

That’s a question on how Roman numeral notation works. And there are two schools of thought there. The first school of thought is that when you use Roman numerals to indicate chords, you put big Roman numerals for major chords and small Roman numerals for minor chords.

So for instance, in a major key, you’re going to have the first chord as major, the second chord as minor, the third chord as minor, the fourth chord as major, the fifth chord as major, the sixth as minor, and the seventh as diminished and conventionally, you put a little circle here to indicate a diminished chord.

That’s one school of thought. In this school of thought, the quality of the chord is reflected in the way you write them. But there is another school of thought that tells you that this doesn’t matter, the important point is just the degree of the chord.

So what they will do, they will just write all this code exactly in the same way I, II, III IV, V, VI and VII. And it’s totally up to you to know that the first chord is always major in a major key, the second chord is always minor in a minor key, so on and so forth.

And in this case, that would lead to them putting the diminished on the seventh, even if not everybody is consistent in that okay, but most of them will not do the diminished on the seventh because it’s obvious that if you’re talking about a major key, this seventh is diminished.

Now, the advantage of the first system is that you know exactly what you’re reading, okay, you know exactly what the person writing this means, okay. But there is also a disadvantage. And the disadvantage is that some things work both in major and minor.

So if you write it this way, then you have to rewrite the whole thing again for minor because in minor the first chord is minor, the second is diminished, the third is major, the fourth is minor, the fifth can be minor or major – depending on if you use natural minor or harmonic minor, the sixth, it’s typically major and the seventh is typically major, though you may have a seven diminished in there, too. And sometimes you have to write flat six, okay, or flat seven, depending on if you are using natural minor or harmonic minor, so, the notation here can become a little bit complicated because of all those little things.

So if you want to create a chord progression, the chord progression, you know, 1 4 5, you like to write it in two different ways, one for major and one for minor. Okay? Well, if you use these other notation system, you just write one four five. And this makes sense for everybody, okay, for both major and minor, make sense so far?

So it’s completely up to you which notation you want to use, it actually personally is a little bit of both, because sometimes this works best, and sometimes this works best. And if there is some doubt, you can always specify, you can either write in big or small Roman numeral, or you can just say, write 1, 2, 3. And then if you really want to specify that this three is minor, you write three with a little m on the side to indicate the third is minor. Make sense? So it’s just a matter of notation, okay?

And again, even this little circle, or if you have augmented or diminished chord, so if you’re gonna write the code, you will typically put a little plus on it, okay? It’s just a notation. And it’s not a perfect thing. It’s a shorthand notation. To try to understand what’s going on in a piece of music.

It’s not meant to substitute completely, for instance, standard notation. And this is true for all kinds of notation, even the chord notation when you write C, D minor, F, and this kind of thing, and you write a C major seven, C major nine, etc, is not supposed to completely replace the standard notation, it’s supposed to convey a different thing. If I write a note, in any kind of notation, if I write a C major nine, what I mean is that the chord here will have the notes C, E, G, B, which is the major seventh, D which is the ninth, okay.

But it doesn’t specify if I’m playing all those notes, only some of those notes, if I’m playing in what order and playing those notes and all this kind of thing, I’m expecting C to be at the base usually, but again, it’s not really specified. This is just giving me the area, the harmonic area where I am.

And this, by just writing C major nine does not tell me if this is the first chord, second chord, or the third chord of the key, though in a major key is going to be either the first or the fourth chord of the key because those are the chord that support the major nine and so on and so forth.

Every notation is meant to convey something different, and every rotation is made to work in a specific context. You typically use roman numerals to understand what’s going on or to analyze a piece of music. So, if you really want to be careful with the major and minor yeah, by all means use this.

But if you just want a rough draft of what what’s going on, and you know that maybe later in the piece, we’re doing the same thing in minor then use this other notation here. So you can immediately see where people are repeating things first in major then in minor, or using similar tricks.

Okay, the important point here is that notation is a flexible thing. I know that there are people out there who say that you have to write things in a specific way, there is only one right way to write it, blah, blah, blah, but in practice in the real world, every musician does whatever they want.

Okay, because we are in different situations, some of us use notation to understand music. Some of us use this notation to convey music. If you’re a jazz player, you’re using these in your chord charts, so that you can play a piece of music without having to sit down and figure out every single note of the peice, right, you just have the chord chart.

In different contexts, we do different things and we use those notations for different things, different notations are optimized for different things, for analysis or for playing.

For instance, jazz notation is definitely optimized to write music in a place where you have scarce visibility, okay, because for instance, I write M A J, and we don’t write I don’t know C, big M, nine, because C big M 9, which is C major nine, is easily confused with C small m 9, which is C minor nine, which is a completely different chord.

So we have right m a j so that visually it’s very clear, it’s a different chord and you don’t get confused and you don’t play the wrong thing Okay, which also tell you that this notation has been developed to work with handwriting not just in print.

In the real life music notations are a flexible thing and you need to be able to understand that what different kinds of notation how different kinds of notation work and what they mean in that specific context.

Okay, there is not one answer like this is the right one and this is the wrong one or vice versa. These things does not exist, it may exist in a specific book, or in a specific school. If you go to a specific jazz college or university, they will tell you one is right and one is wrong. But when you come out here and play music, you’re gonna find all those things, and even weirder things going on because sometimes musicians just make it up on the spot and invent something to convey the idea they want to other musicians, okay, so that’s what it is.

Take it more as a rough idea on where we need to go and what we need to do. And in doubt, always ask the musician in front of you. If you’re a musician in front of you, or in doubt, always try to understand what the musician that wrote this notation is meaning and don’t get too hung up on notation. The important point is the sound and making music.

Thank you very much for watching this video. This is Tommaso Zillio for, and until next time, enjoy.

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