[Smt-talk] Different Labeling Systems

Ninov, Dimitar N dn16 at txstate.edu
Mon Dec 10 15:08:48 PST 2012

Dear Colleagues,

Thank you for your input and important points. I myself have been torn among and between different labeling systems in my life such as:

-	A mixture between Riemannian functional letters and capital RNs.
-	Mixed capital/lower case RNs
-	Capital letters alone
-	Lead sheet symbols for jazz analysis (Imaj.7, IIm7, etc)
-	Figured bass alone.

As I mentioned earlier, I feel obliged to apply a mixed system at Texas State. But in my writings I tend to experiment with different systems to find the one that gives minimum clutter and maximum clarity. 

Allow me to share with you my thoughts on the mixed system. I am not totally against it, but I have gradually found for myself more shortcomings in it than in other methods. For example:

1.	Visually it looks to me clumsier than any other system. Perhaps lower case Roman letters did not exist originally, with those funny dots over the letter itself (ii, vii, etc.). In addition, the different size of the RNs accompanied by circles, slashed circles, m, M, Mm, mM, and figures literally creates a visual jam that takes some time to overcome before proceeding with the chord building. 

2.	The mixed system neutralizes the effect of figured bass as a method of reflecting the melodic motion over the bass; it fixes the chords as “ready-to-go” formations rather than leaving room for the music to flow from one chord to another that may be a nuance of the first. For instance, a fast conversion of a major S chord to a minor one may be reflected with a single flat rather than a combination of IV and iv.

3.	One of its most important drawbacks is the necessity to rewrite the same progression twice to show how it works in major and minor. With the capital letters this problem is most often solved. For example: I-V6-VI-IV-V7-I could be played in both modes, in minor without altering the 7th scale degree. 

4.	Instead of offering the student the chord sizes on a plate, it seems more beneficial to let the key signature suggest the diatonic basis of the chords. Additional alterations may be shown with numbers as necessary. 

5.	The mixed system is occasionally inadequate in labeling various altered chords that are outside of the most typical collection of +6 chords and the augmented triad. For example, a dominant 6/4 chord with a simultaneously raised and lowered fifth cannot be labelled using circles, slashed circles, pluses alone, etc. It is a combination of a major diminished and an augmented triad.

I find charm in the figured bass as a system that survived over the centuries. At the same time I agree with Joel that it does not denote alterations in the bass (which could be fixed with b1 or #1 introduced next to the RN). A combination of capital letters with figured bass I find appealing but it has the shortcoming of becoming too cluttered with altered figures (for instance, VII+6/4/b3 in major, resolved into I6 with a doubled third or plagally into I5. This is why I tend to think more and more of applying two different systems depending on whether I do analysis of a musical example or I play a progression upon a given scheme.

In the former case I would simplify the symbols to the maximum, because the music is before me. For example, If the progression to be analyzed is Em7 – Eb7 – Dm7 – Db7 – I (in C major), I would write III7 – VII6-5 alt./II – II7 – VII6-5 alt. – I. At the level of the V chord, those altered dominants, called by jazz people “tritone substitutes” may have different labels. 

If, however, I have to play a RN scheme on the same progression, I would have to be as specific as possible. For instance: III7 – VII+6/5/b1 of II – II7 – VII+6/5/b1 – I. The figures will be arranged vertically next to the RN.

Having said all of that, I am still searching and do not seem satisfied. The one thing that a creative teacher must not do, however, is to close the door before different possibilities and to penalize the student for expressing functions with RNs. For example, on Saturday I had a heated argument with a colleague who wanted to penalize students for labeling the subdominant/secondary dominant Fr.+6 as V4/3/b5 of V which it is. I simply could not get this teacher to understand that geographic names are only nicknames that give information of a particular size, but have no relevance to function. She would label an inverted dominant as V4/3 and then, after having lowered the fifth of that dominant, she would mark it as Fr.+6, as if the lowering of the fifth immediately deprived this dominant of its function. Fr.+6 is fine, of course (as tradition) but the chord is an altered dominant that stems from a diatonic one. To penalize a student for having identified the right function…not only Walter Piston, but many others who believe that harmonic functions are expressed with RNs would turn upside down into their graves knowing that they are being penalized for that! Many chords have been derived via linear motion, but later on assessed harmonically and used deliberately with a concrete harmonic function.

Thank you,


Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
School of Music
Texas State University
601 University Drive
San Marcos, Texas 78666

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