Roman Numerals

Before we begin, I need to talk about pitch, and then perfect pitch.

Essentially, pitch is how high or how low a sound is.  Women’s voices generally have high pitches; men have low pitches.  While there are practically an infinite amount of pitches that can and cannot be heard (think of dog whistles, as one example), all pitches fall into the same 12 pitch classes.  If you can imagine a keyboard, it is made up of these pitches – A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.  These are the white keys.  The black keys represent sharps and flats, which is a WHOLE other post altogether.  Suffice it to say, an A sharp (A#) is not the same as an A, but apparently not different enough to be given it’s own name.

You might be thinking that this altogether does not make sense.  If there are 88 different tones on a piano, why not give them 88 different names?  Have you ever tried to remember 88 different names simeltaneously?  While all the notes are distinctly different, certain of these notes vibrate in similar ways, so that musicians and scientists alike have come to recognize that even though this key “down here” and this key “up here” are very far apart, they are the same note.  Sound is essentially vibration that your ear translates into a sound in your head, and the way vibrations go, without getting to heady and scientific on you, is that if you play any A on the keyboard, and then play the very next A up on the keyboard, the higher note is vibrating twice as fast as the lower note.  It is in this way that they are related.  A 2 to 1 ratio is a very simple ratio, and so they are considered the same note, or belong to the same pitch class, even though they are 12 keys apart on the keyboard. So even though there are an infinite amount of pitches, we can still classify them all into just 12 groups.

Perfect pitch is the ability to hear any tone and know, without any prompting, what the name of the note is.  It is a skill that not every musician possesses, and to be honest, perfect pitch is again, a whole other post i could write.  However, I won’t.  I bring up perfect pitch because of a musician’s ability to recognize a note in any context, and without any other reference point.  I liken it to an artist who can tell the difference between yellow and burnt umber, for example, without any reference except their own memory.

Perfect pitch doesn’t seem to come with the territory of being a professional musician.  There are pros who have perfect pitch, and there are also people who do not have any musical talent whatsoever who have the ability to distinguish between notes (I once heard of a person who actually could identify pitches by their MHz, or frequency). But the majority of people do not have the ability to just pull the name of a note or a chord out of thin air.

So for the rest of us, there are Roman numerals.

Most people are familiar with Roman numerals.  I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII are the ones musicians use most.  These are, of course, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.  Roman numerals have the distinct ability, unlike our European numbers, of being either uppercase or lowercase. Uppercase Roman numerals represent major chords, and appear like this:


Meanwhile, the lowercase numbers represent minor chords, and look like this.

i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, vii

The advantage of using Roman numerals to talk about chords is that one does not need perfect pitch to recognize a chord naming it by its Roman numeral. Roman numerals represent the way a chord functions within the world of that specific song.  a I chord will always sound like a I chord.  A vi chord will also, always sound like a vi chord.  On the other hand, a C Major chord can have a few different functions depending on what key it is in.  And even if you can pick out the C Major chord in a song, you may not be able to figure out what the other chords are.  being able to identify the function of a chord, on the other hand, can help you identify other chords as well.  It’s like working on a puzzle.  If you can find one piece, you can usually then plug a few more into place based on that.

Roman numerals specifically come in handy when listening to a song you have never heard before, but want to learn (and cannot find on, probably one of my favorite guitar sites).  Once you start being able to recognize the functions of chords in a song, it is much easier to play a song and identify it.

Another good use for Roman numerals is for ease of transposition.  Say you have a diva of a singer who refuses to sing whatever song you’re working on with her in whatever key you’ve got it in.  If you know the chord progression in Roman numerals, it’s much easier to put the song in the key your diva needs it in instead of changing the chords as you go along.

Hopefully, though, you will come across the first situation much more often than the second. 😉

This blog will regularly go into Roman numeral analysis for songs, but will also go over Roman numerals themselves more in the future as well.