A Structural Examination of Tonality, Vocabulary, Texture,
Sonorities, and Time Organization in Western Art Music



Chapter 13. Roman Numeral Analysis

Chapter 12. Transition to the Common Practice Period
Chapter 14. Tonic and Dominant


As in species counterpoint, the relationship of voices needs to be analyzed. With the expansion to four voices, there are six pairs of voices which require intervallic analysis.

  1. Bass/Soprano
  2. Bass/Alto
  3. Bass/Tenor
  4. Tenor/Soprano
  5. Tenor/Alto
  6. Alto/Soprano

This is not only cumbersome to do, but is virtually impossible to comprehend.

Instead of using intervals, a different technique will be employed: ROMAN NUMERALS.

Roman numerals are symbols to label a collection of pitches, stacked in 3rds above a root, forming either a triad or tetrad. The root defines the Roman numeral with its scale degree number and name. Therefore, "I" represents the triad built over ^1, the tonic scale degree.

There are many numbers needed in music theory, such as:

  1. Intervals
  2. Scale degrees
  3. Accidentals in key signatures
  4. Measure numbers
  5. Inversions
  6. Meter signatures
  7. Species types

And there will be many more, even in this chapter (figured bass).

Instead of creating still another set of numbers, Roman numerals are best expressed by the root name, and not by the scale degree number. Therefore, "I" is "tonic" (not "one") and "V" is "dominant" (not "five").

In addition, the quality of a Roman numeral is reflected in its representation:

Minor triadlowercase Roman numeral
Diminished triadlowercase Roman numeral,
followed by a circle (o)

(leading tone)
followed by a plus sign (+)


It is important to understand that Roman numerals are not just about chords. They represent the activity of the counterpoint at a particular point in time (like intervals in species counterpoint) and are something like one frame taken from a cinematic reel. One frame makes a still picture, but the movie is about action. One Roman numeral is a collection of pitches, but occurs in the music as a part of the contrapuntal action.

Learn more about Roman numerals

As these Roman numerals are placed in the context of a musical example, Arabic numerals are also added to the right of the Roman numeral to indicate the intervals above the bass note. Omit octaves and unisons, reduce the intervals to their smallest form, and order them from the largest down to the smallest.


FIGURED BASS is a traditional system to help in analysis/synthesis studies. It is a compact way to indicate pitches to be used in a keyboard part. The figured bass numbers represent intervals above the bass, and those pitches may be placed in any upper voice, in any octave.

The basic symbols:

[blank]Add an understood 5th and 3rd above the bass
6Add a 6th and an understood 3rd above the bass (cancel the understood 5th)
4Add a 4th above the bass (cancel the understood 3rd)
7Add a 7th above the bass (in addition to an understood 5th and 3rd)
Add a 6th and a 5th above the bass (in addition to an understood 3rd)
Horizontal line between numbersPlace those intervals in the same voice
Accidental aloneAdd that accidental to an understood 3rd
Accidental before a numberAdd that accidental to that note
Slash through numberRaise that note

Figured bass defines the pitch content above a bass line.

The procedures of counterpoint (part writing) direct how melodic lines are to be constructed.

Learn more about figured bass


The position of a particular triad is important, because it gives us specific information about the bass line. These are identified by the intervals above the bass. As with figured bass, the intervals of a 5th and a 3rd are understood to be present since they occur so often. Even through they are not written, they must not be forgotten.

Therefore, the example directly above should be written like this:


There are four basic steps used to create a Roman numeral analysis in a piece of music:

  1. Stack the sonority into thirds
  2. Identify the quality of the triad (or tetrad)
  3. Identify the name of the triad from the root (bottom note once stacked in thirds)
  4. Identify the position from the chord factor in the bass


Tonality, or key, must always be indicated before beginning a Roman numeral analysis. Any given triad can work many different ways, depending on the key, so a key orientation is necessary to provide an accurate label. This initial tonality is called the GLOBAL KEY and applies for the duration of the piece no matter how large or small. It must also include an indication that it is either a major or a minor key. This can be done as simply as writing uppercase letters for major keys and lowercase for minor. Always follow the key name with a colon.

Major Parallel Minor
C: C major c: C minor
G: G major g: G minor
D: D major d: D minor
A: A major a: A minor
E: E major e: E minor
B: B major b: B minor
F#: / Gb: F# major/ Gb major f#: F# minor
Db: Db major c#: C# minor
Ab: Ab major g#: G# minor
Eb: Eb major eb: / d#: Eb minor/ D# minor
Bb: Bb major bb: Bb minor
F: F major f: F minor


Provide a Roman numeral analysis, and circle and label all non-chord tones, for the following:




Add soprano, alto, and tenor lines above this figured bass, and provide a Roman numeral analysis:

To prepare this writing assignment properly, use the notation guidelines appendix, located at Basic Principles of Music Notation, Semester I.

Links to chapters in this unit:
Chapter 12. Transition to the Common Practice Period
Chapter 14. Tonic and Dominant


Link to next unit: DIATONIC PROCEDURES II: Expanding the Phrase

Copyright 2008-2009 by Phillip Magnuson.

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