[Smt-talk] Abbreviated Labels of Seventh Chords

Nicolas Meeùs nicolas.meeus at paris-sorbonne.fr
Thu Feb 9 00:40:43 PST 2012

The French tradition, that of the Paris Conservatoire, is to write +4 in 
this case, the + meaning that the 4 is the leading tone (similarly, one 
would write +6 in second inversion). This tradition, which is not mine 
and against which I am trying to fight in Paris, has several drawbacks, 
one of them being that the French use labels that hardly anyone else 
     I wondered about the origin of this figuring, without performing a 
thorough research. It certainly goes back to Catel's treatise, and 
perhaps earlier. The + sign is in origin merely a stylized #. Catel 
makes use of it (and of the barred 5) with the specific (although 
unstated) intention of specially labeling dominant seventh chords, the 
ones that he considers "natural", all positions of which always have 
either a + or a barred 5 (from fundamental position to third inversion: 
+3; 6/5barred; +6, +4; this is tricky, because 4/3 becomes +6, 2 or 4/2 
becomes +4). Applied dominants are labeled in the same way, with the 
other perverse effect that French students see modulations everywhere 
(as the French did since François Campion in 1716: /tout diese 
extraordinaire fait sortir du ton/, "any accidental sharp leads outside 
the tonality").
     Labeling third-inversion dominants as V4/2 may result from an 
attempt to reconcile the two systems. In this respect, I'd be pleased to 
know how Nadia Boulanger labeled chords, if anyone on this list knows 
(it has been discussed here some time ago that her teaching of harmony 
followed the tradition of the Conservatoire, but her ciphering was not 
specifically discussed, that I remember).

My own view about the labeling of seventh chords is that it should 
indicate the dissonant interval: (8)/7, 6/5, 4/3, 2/(0), the 8 and 0 
being omitted as redundant with the written bass, of course; this is 
what Dimitar describes, with a slightly different explanation. The main 
difference with the French system is that it does not specifically 
indicate _dominant_ sevenths, which may be viewed (by the French) as a 
shortcoming, or (by the others) as an advantage.

Nicolas Meeùs
Université Paris-Sorbonne

Le 9/02/2012 04:50, Ninov, Dimitar N a écrit :
> Dear Colleagues,
> My students were asking me why I wrote V2 instead of V4/2. I guess I had to ask them why they wrote V4/2 instead of V2. This is not a big deal, of course, but I wanted to bring to your attention the fact that number 4 is irrelevant to the logic of derivation of the abbreviated labels of seventh chords.
> The abbreviated labels are derived by two intervals: 1) the interval between the bass and the root on the one hand, and 2) the interval between the bass and the seventh on the other. Thus in root position the only number is 7, because the interval between the bass and the root is unison; in first inversion we have 6-5; in second inversion 4-3, and in third inversion the only number is 2, because the interval between the bass and the seventh is unison.
> Why 4? It shows the interval between the bass and the third of the seventh chord, which does not have to be shown unless we work in minor and use only figured bass with no Roman numerals.
> When I flip through the pages of some European and older American books of harmony (as well as some relatively new) the above explanation is provided. Author such as Piston, Tischler, Schoenberg, Horvitt, Cook, and all Russian theorists use 2 instead of 4/2, but the massive tendency in the US is to write 4-2. Is this tradition based on ignoring the logic of derivation, or is there something special that stands behind this label?
> I would appreciate any ideas in this regard.
> Best wishes,
> Dimitar
> Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
> School of Music
> Texas State University
> 601 University Drive
> San Marcos, Texas 78666
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