Roman Numerals and Inversion Symbols

In tonal music, we can classify chords in keys to find patterns across pieces of music. So that we can make these comparisons and learn more about how music works, we label chords with Roman numerals.

We use roman numerals from I to VII to label chords built on scale degrees  to . We will also use upper and lowercase to tell the difference among chord qualities. When you write uppercase roman numerals with pencil, please add lines to the top and the bottom of the whole numeral. Something like this:

This will help me tell the difference between your uppercase and lowercase numerals.

We say roman numerals with cardinal numbers. For example we call the tonic triad “one.”

Triads in major

I ii iii IV V vi vii°
major minor minor major major minor diminished
Do-Mi-Sol Re-Fa-La Mi-Sol-Ti Fa-La-Do Sol-Ti-Re La-Do-Mi Ti-Re-Fa

Note the degree sign after the lowercase numeral for the leading-tone triad (vii°).

Seventh Chords in major

I7 ii7 iii7 IV7 V7 vi7 viiø7
major minor minor major dominant minor half dim.
Do-Mi-Sol-Ti Re-Fa-La-Do Mi-Sol-Ti-Re Fa-La-Do-Mi Sol-Ti-Re-Fa La-Do-Mi-Sol Ti-Re-Fa-La

Note the superscript 7 for root position seventh chords, and the slash through degree sign for viiø7.

For seventh chords, we say the word “seven” after the roman numeral when we speak roman numerals. For example, iii7 is said “three seven.”

Triads in minor

i ii° III iv V VI vii°
minor diminished major minor major* minor diminished*
Do-Me-Sol Re-Fa-Le Me-Sol-Te Fa-Le-Do Sol-Ti-Re Le-Do-Me Ti-Re-Fa

*Note that V and vii° use Ti instead of Te. This means an accidental!

Seventh Chords in minor

i7 iiø7 III7 iv7 V7 VI7 vii°7
major half dim. major minor dominant* major fully dim.*
Do-Me-Sol-Te Re-Fa-Le-Do Me-Sol-Te-Re Fa-Le-Do-Me Sol-Ti-Re-Fa Le-Do-Me-Sol Ti-Re-Fa-Le

*Note that V7 and vii°7 use Ti instead of Te. This means an accidental!

We specify qualities of diminished seventh chords when we speak roman numerals. So, in minor, the supertonic seventh chord is said “two half-diminished seven,” and the leading-tone seventh chord is said “seven fully-diminished seven.”

If you want to specify quality for major and minor chords, say the quality first and then the roman numeral. For example, “minor one” and “major four seven.”

Inversion Symbols

Since there are lots of times when the root is not the lowest note, we need a way to show this with our roman numerals. To do this we borrow our inversion symbols from figured bass.

We pronounce the inversion symbols with cardinal numbers as well, saying them after the roman numeral: the superscript number before the subscript number. For example, we say “two six-five” forii65. (For the most complicated version of this, vii°42 is said “seven fully diminished four-two.”)

Triad Inversions

Root Position First Inversion Second Inversion
No added symbol superscript 6 superscript 6 and subscript 4

Seventh Chord Inversions

Root Position First Inversion Second Inversion Third Inversion
superscript 7 sup 6  and sub 5 sup 4 and sub 3 sup 4 and sub 2

Memorizing Roman Numerals

Please memorize the roman numerals, correct qualities, diatonic pitches (solfege), and inversion symbols for all of these chords in major and minor. You will spend a huge amount of your theory coursework analyzing music with these symbols. The sooner you know them, the better. I cannot overstate this point.