[Smt-talk] Abbreviated Labels of Seventh Chords

Michael Luxner mluxner at mail.millikin.edu
Thu Feb 9 07:33:00 PST 2012

That is indeed elegant, and dovetails nicely with the point I make to students: that in all positions (7; 6/5; 4/3; 2) the symbol's only essential purpose is to show the dissonance in relation to the bass.  Incidentally, we use the Kostka-Payne text, which presents the third-inversion symbol as "4/2," but occasionally uses just "2" in later chapters, without comment.

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>>> Stephen Jablonsky <jablonsky at optimum.net> 2/9/2012 7:18 AM >>>

I've been using 2 instead of 4/2 for decades because it is so easy to teach your students that the abbreviated figured bass numbers descend from 7 to 2: 7 - 6/5 - 4/3 - 2. It is simple and beautiful and seems to possess some universal truth about it.

On Feb 8, 2012, at 10:50 PM, Ninov, Dimitar N wrote:

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,


Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
School of Music
Texas State University
601 University Drive
San Marcos, Texas 78666
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Prof. Stephen Jablonsky, Ph.D.

Music Department Chair
The City College of New York
160 Convent Avenue S-72
New York NY 10031
(212) 650-7663

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