Dearest Hooktheory team and users,
The Hooktheory web site does not appear to have a consistent approach with regard to how to handle Roman numerals in minor keys. This is very frustrating, especially if one hopes to explain harmony in a consistent way. I see three main approaches used throughout the site. I list these three approaches below, using the example of the chord progression Am, G, F, and E in the key of A minor.
- Encode in the relative major, i.e., vi, V, IV, III.
- Encode using traditional Roman numerals, i.e., i, VII, VI, V.
- Encode in the parallel major, i.e., i, bVII, bVI, V.
I have searched for guidelines in the help materials and this forum as to which approach is preferred, but I have not been able to find clear guidance. That being said, this web site shows tacet acceptance of the second method, since this is the way that the chords for minor keys are presented as an encoding default. Nonetheless, many users specifically go against this approach, putting the song in the parallel major to get “flat” chords in a minor key.
If the site developers do indeed prefer use of the second approach, I would suggest they strongly reconsider in favor of the third approach (encoding in the key of the parallel major). Although the second approach is commonly used in the analysis of Western art music from the common-practice period (c. 1600-1900) and is therefore taught in most music theory undergraduate classrooms, it has become deprecated within the professional academic music theory community for the analysis of pop and rock music due to the great amount of mixture in this style and general lack of parallel-key chord progression similarlity. In other words, the default approach to minor used on this site is somewhat antiquated, applicable more to the music of Mozart and Beethoven than the music of Led Zeppelin and Miley Cyrus.
The first approach (encoding in the relative major) is viable for ambiguous cases in which it is not clear whether the material is in a minor key or the relative major. But for songs (like Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”) that are clearly grounded in a minor tonic and avoid the relative major altogether, the third approach has become a standard method.
Overall, I really love this site, and I use it every semester in my teaching. It really promises to revolutionize the study of music theory, especially for pop and rock styles. But if the developers and users of this site are truly attempting to move music theory pedagogy into the future, we should at least move the harmonic nomenclature out of the past.
Trevor de Clercq
PhD in music theory, Eastman School of Music
Assistant Professor of Recording Industry, Middle Tennessee State University