21. Degrees of the Scale

Naming with Roman Numerals 

So far, we have named the pitches of the scale and the chords built upon them using letter names. In this chapter we are going to learn how to name the pitches of the scale and the chords built upon them using Roman numerals. Naming with Roman numerals is actually the preferred method of naming.  

In case you are not familiar with Roman numerals, here are the first seven Roman numerals and their modern equivalents. 

(1) 

II (1+1=2) 

III (1+1+1=3) 

IV (1 taken from 5 = 4) 

(5) 

VI (5+1=6) 

VII (5+1+1=7) 

In the following diagram, the Roman numerals are placed under each degree of the scale. (“Degree” is another word for “pitches” of the scale, or “steps” of the scale). 

It is very important to understand that Roman numerals are not specific to a certain pitch, but rather they are specific to the degrees of the scale. Let’s explain what is meant by this. In the preceding diagram, “C” is the 1st pitch of the C major scale, and so it is named using the Roman numeral “I”. In the following diagram, “C” is the 4th pitch of the G major scale, and so it is named using the Roman numeral “IV”.  

As mentioned above, Roman numerals are not only used to name each pitch of the scale, but also the chords built upon them. Major chords are indicated with an uppercase Roman numeral while minor, diminished, and augmented chords are indicated with a lowercase Roman numeral. 

Just as Roman numerals are not quite specific to certain pitches, they are not specific to certain chords. Rather, they are specific to the degrees of the scale. For example, in the preceding diagram, the “A minor” chord is the 6th chord of the scale, and so it is named using the Roman numeral “vi”. In the following diagram, the “A minor” chord is the 2nd chord of the scale, and so it is named using the Roman numeral “ii”. 

Calling chords by their letter names is very useful in identifying them, but calling chords by their Roman numeral has an even greater benefit, it tells us about a chord’s positional relationship to the other chords in the scale. The relationship between chords is an important aspect of music. 

Note: Although only major scales were used in the diagrams for this chapter, the degrees of the minor scale can be named using Roman numerals.

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