Minor Keys, Roman numerals


With regard to “Sad But True”, the verse seems even more strongly rooted in a minor tonic than other sections of the song. b3 appears quite prominently is James Hetfield’s vocal melody, and most of the verse is just sitting on that D5 power chord. Sure, it goes to #IV/bVand bVII chords for those fleeting moments, but many theorists (especially those with a Schenkerian bent) would argue that there is no real change of harmony during the verse. But even if we take the bVII and #IV/bV as “real” harmonies, it certainly doesn’t make a Locrian harmonic collection. The tonic triad, with its powerful power chord open fifth, is too strong to ignore. I do like your “contrapuntal” explanation, but if we are really reducing these “chords” to just the root notes, then they aren’t really chords so much any more, are they? They are just strings of notes, like a riff, and thus this would argue even more strongly that it is a melodic figure with no real change of harmony.

I’ll have to re-read Nicole’s article. I’ll get back to you on that.


You’re completely right that statistics of the harmony depends on the chosen corpus. The RS 500 for instance, is almost entirely 60s and 70s rock, which would probably have a much different distribution than say the Billboard #1 singles compiled over all the years. I do think it is unfair for you to say that our corpus is skewed due to inexperience or simplemindedness of our users. Our database is actually populated by a small percentage of Hooktheory users, most of whom are quite experienced in music theory. @HertzDevil and @Turbo, for instance, are famous for nuanced analyses, and are important contributors to the site.

I’m happy to entertain a discussion of the evolution of chord popularity distribution on a separate thread. I’d like to turn the discussion back to your OP.

Ultimately, we are unlikely to change the prominence of the major scale as it exists in our system at least in the near term, so if you fundamentally object to this, you may be stuck with it for the time being. However I can help you with “popular” style notation, and as an educator in the field, your view on this matter is very important to us.

As this is a fairly major update to the system, we want to make sure that our combined vision for how this would work accomplishes what you’re asking for in a way that doesn’t compromise the experience for other users.

What’s currently on the table, combining everyone’s feedback so far, is a configurable option to view Hookpad and TheoryTabs in the popular style notation any time a mode is selected that is not major (for major, both common practice and popular styles would agree on the labeling). We’re also considering a third view option whereby TheoryTabs are by default shown in the relative major mode.

As of now, we’re leaning toward essentially keeping all the colors the same as they are now, as @trevordeclercq has suggested. We feel that this will probably create the least amount of confusion, and maybe even have the added benefit of helping to visualize the intervalic differences between the major scale and its parallel modes.

Any feedback on this issue, as always, is greatly appreciated.

@trevordeclercq Alright, you got me there. Very valid points. Some of which I already understood actually. Nice handling on getting a rhetorical question answered in an unexpected way :wink:

Still though, you’re advocating dumping out the modern modes for simplicity and better understanding of harmony. I feel like there might be some large discrepancy in our experiences, other than quantity that is.

Perhaps you’re more accustomed to seeing things like Cliffs of Dover? Implications of mode (Dorian) are in the “chorus” but it’s not quite right about it, and you can be justified in saying it didn’t really modulate or change mode due to the ii-V-I 's that are present in relative major, where my best rebuttal would be nothing more than a nagging feeling on how weird it is that its hypermeter works out to have an “offbeat” focus in a straightforward swing and contrary to the “onbeat” focus of the prior section.

But then what about Get Lucky? There was a lot of clamor and confusion for it between F# minor, B Dorian, and B minor. B minor would feel very unsatisfactory to me since G# are present even outside the major IV, it never touches G natural and has the Dorian characteristic IV-i at regular intervals as not to be a one shot plagal, and without any ii-V-I to poke its head out in relative major and overrule. I could maybe see myself conceding that other tracks I would say “Dorian” for can work as minor, like Drive Hard and Timeless, as there is some degree of indication for it. But I cannot wrap my head around how Get Lucky could be more comprehensible in B minor.

The Simpsons Main Title Theme is explicitly stated to be in the acoustic scale by many sources (aka Lydian dominant - but harmony-wise close enough to Lydian. To contrast, the double harmonic major a la Misirlou doesn’t generate anything resembling what’s found in heptatonia prima, unless you’ve seen instances of blatant overuse of root position Neapolitans in a major key or something-- i.e. not this) , and its “progress” is mostly done in modulation, leaving the tonic at any moment unambiguous and complimented with a lot of hammering on 4#. I find that last point understandable since Lydian’s notoriety of being difficult to establish is only second to Locrian. I’m not sure how you would explain that for your own case. You could perhaps find a macro structure in the modulations that imitate a major progression, but that is a notably different endeavor and wouldn’t really fly in this discussion. Your approach here would have to be that it’s not actually close enough to Lydian and thus its behavior is irrelevant. And that’s a catch-22, since in doing so you’d have implicate that Lydian and Lydian dominant have uniquely identifiable characteristics for approaching harmony, and unique means it would be distinct from major. I don’t expect to have made a coup de grâce or anything by this though, so what did I miss?


We are indeed getting a bit off topic, you’re right.

Anyway, I am certainly not opposed to the prominence of the major scale. The system of Roman numerals for which I’m advocating takes the major scale as its point of departure. It was only with regard to the use of colors that I thought perhaps you might take a more generic approach to scale degrees. But personally, I don’t really care too much about the colors, because they don’t directly relate to (or conflict with) anything we teach in our theory classes.

About the ♭VII chord: How is that ranking derived? The Trends API always converts Theorytabs to the relative Major key before evaluating the chord progressions, and it does not keep track of the original modes of the Theorytabs. So in practice all these progressions refer to the same I -♭VII progression in the popular music style, but only when the respective Theorytabs’ modes are also taken into consideration:

  • Lydian “4.D3”
  • Major “1.M7”
  • Mixolydian “5.4”
  • Dorian “L2.1”
  • Minor “5/2.5”
  • Phrygian “5/6.L2”
  • Locrian “5/3.5/2” etc.

And these are identical to i - ♭VII:

  • Lydian “b4.D3”
  • Major “D1.M7”
  • Mixolydian “M5.4”
  • Dorian “2.1”
  • Minor “6.5”
  • Phrygian “3.L2”
  • Locrian “L7.5/2” etc.

Furthermore, each chord in the API is equivalent to a number of other borrowed chords of the relative Major mode, so “M1.b7”, “4/3.L5”, “b5.D4” and so on refer to the same I(i) -♭VII progression. I believe this constructed ranking reveals major flaws in the unfinished Trends API, which does not even encompass all usable chords, nor accurately reflect the ubiquity of ♭VII (in fact I tend to skip analyses of parts that only use “” and the like).

To derive a ranking like that, for instance, the Trends API must search for “6.5” but remove results from Theorytabs that are not in the Minor mode, so that progressions like the Major “” won’t be misinterpreted as i -♭VII, and so on for all other non-Minor progressions using “6.5”, and so on for equivalent chord progressions in other modes.

Indeed, it is counter-intuitive to refer to chords as borrowed chords in the relative major in the Trends API, when “1” does not always mean the tonic. From a statistical viewpoint, one does not even need to know that the Major ii - V is identical to the Dorian i - IV and the Mixolydian v - I, as chord progressions are treated with respect to the tonic in each mode. The Trends API should always convert Theorytabs to the parallel Major key rather than the relative, and the common practice tenet of shifting the diatonic scale to reach other modes ought to be dropped in the Trends API. The Trends API should make it clear that the Major “” (by repeating “”) is different from the Minor “”, which is equivalent to Major “b1.b6.b3.b7” as borrowed chords have worked in the Major mode as a compatibility workaround. The same applies in general when non-diatonic modes such as Harmonic Minor and Freygish are added to Hookpad.

Then, using the popular music style, the Trends API could unite chord progressions from all modes, even compatibility Theorytabs that use the parallel major key of a minor key, and other mixed-mode progressions like IV - V - ♭VI - ♭VII - I. The chord quality of a common practice Roman numeral can be determined from its scale degree and mode, but for the popular music style, both the required accidentals and the chord type must be explicitly shown in the API. Now that would be a much larger update compared to simply changing the display of Roman numerals in non-Major modes.


Is voting still open? In short, my preference is #1.

‘Adding popular style notation’, would be an improvement in my mind, but it’s fine as is.

But the second part, ‘keep colors the same’ I strongly favor. If applied consistently, color can be a useful mnemonic tool. Not sure if other users have used HookTheory in a similar manner, but at this point, even if you changed the colors, I’d still be using the original ones. Thanks.

Hi @smitchmor,

Yes, voting is still open :smile:

We haven’t made any changes yet, and of course it’s great to hear from as many users as possible. Thanks for your input!


Let me just respond to each song example you’ve presented, and then I’ll summarize at the end.

Cliffs of Dover: The chorus seems clearly to me to be ii V I at the beginning. I highly doubt many if any theorists who specialize in rock music would analyze this chorus in Dorian. Sure, it’s possible, but I think that’s a mis-hearing (sorry). I’m not sure exactly what you mean by the “offbeat” focus, unless you just mean that tonic (G major) is not on the first bar of the four-bar phrase. If hypermetric downbeat-ed-ness were our standard, then pretty much every pre-chorus and bridge would be in a mode. That seems like an odd view, and goes against basic theoretical ideas about the integrety of keys and tonal unity.

Get Lucky: I probably wouldn’t analyze the song in F# minor, B Dorian, or B minor. I would choose A major and call it ii IV vi V. This example is kind of related to the “Cliffs of Dover” example, in that you seem to want to make the first chord of a progression tonic. But that’s certainly not a standard strategy. You may be concerned that “Get Lucky” never evinces the real tonic (A major), but that is a commonly-known issue in pop/rock analysis. (Mark Spicer gave a nice talk at the 2009 meeting in Montreal, which often gets cited.) It seems that your understanding of “tonic” is somewhat different than the commonly-held view of tonic in music theory. Tonic should be a stable sonority, with no palpable desire to move anywhere. It should sound like home. The first chord of that “Get Lucky” progression does not sound stable. It wants to move. That’s the great thing about that progression, in that it naturally keeps cycling back upon itself, in an infinite loop, because more stable chords (like F# minor) are in hypermetrically weak positions. I think F# minor as tonic is more viable than B minor, but I wouldn’t choose F# minor for the reasons that Ryan and I explored originally. In songs where it is ambiguous as to whether it is in the relative major or relative minor, it’s best to choose the relative major. That’s the way HookTheory was originally organized, and I think that is a good default. When I talk about charting songs in minor (the “minority” of cases, pun intended!), it is those songs or song parts for which the relative major has lost is perceptual pull (such as in Metallica songs).

Drive Hard: Here’s a song (at least what I can hear in this clip) where tonic is correctly identified. This song is in C minor, with the IV as mixture (let’s call this strong Dorian mixture, if you prefer). I have repaired one error you made in your transcription: that last chord is a G major chord, not another F major chord. So we have a major V chord at the end. Is it still Dorian? Mixture is just so prevalent in pop/rock, that using these modes seems somewhat trivial (or rather, happenstance or coincidental), assuming tonic is correctly identified. I find it frustrating to have to put V/i instead of just a regular V, since there is nothing unexpected about a major V chord if the tonic is minor. The fact that you have bVI but not bVII chords (instead, VII chords) due to the implied harmonies of the mode is very strange from a modern theory point of view.

Timeless: This is another example where what we’re really seeing is the great variety of mixture in a song, with the IV, bVI, and iv chords not conforming to any single mode.

The Simpson’s Theme: Here Lydian is manifest primarily (if not solely) in the melodic content but does not really affect harmonic structure in terms of chord progressions. (There really is no “chord progression” that I can see, at least within each section.) This is the same issue we saw in the Metallica example. As far as the modulations go, I don’t really have a problem with them. I do hear them as modulations instead of chord progressions.

To summarize, I think all of these examples of modal harmony can be better understood and charted through a more simple major and minor system that allows for mixture. We can understand the types of mixture that occurs through ideas borrowed from melodic modes. Indeed, I am fine with those types of discussions and have discussed ways to understand the mixture in songs through modal concepts above (e.g., the Mixolydian verse to “Hungry Like the Wolf”) and in my own academic papers. But, returning to my original point at the beginning of this long thread, using modes to determine the “diatonicness” of certain harmonies seems misguided and has been abandoned by the music theory community. You cite Nicole Biamonte’s 2012 talk on modal mixture in rock and metal in your post above. This paper only further proves my point. Nicole sees the Doors’ “Break on Through” as evincing Aelioan qualities, but she labels the progression not as i-VII but rather as i-bVII, i.e., with Roman numerals referenced to the major scale. Similarly, her Phrygian example of the verse to Iron Maiden’s “Remember Tomorrow” is labelled i-bII-i-bVII, again using the Roman numerals calculated from the parallel major. It is worth pointing out that with this example, bVII does not strictly belong to the Phrygian mode, since the third of the chord (a regular scale degree 2) is not within the Phrygian collection. So even in the handful of very short examples she provides (and this is not the only example of hers that shows this problem), the modes themselves are poor ways of accounting for the harmonic events.

In summary, theorists still use modes to refer to harmony, but we do so primarily as a convenient way to describe the common types of mixture found in minor and major keys. Dorian is a major IV chord in minor; Phrygian means using a bII chord in minor, Lydian means a major II chord in a major key; Mixolydian means a bVII chord in major; and Aeolian means the natural minor collection, involving in particular bVI and bVII. But analyzing entire swaths of songs “in” a single mode and then having departures from that mode being modal mixture within a mode is just making things unnecessarily complicated. If I write the progression i-bII-i, I have no problem with someone saying that it is a Phrygian progression, but I am not going to analyze it as “in” Phrygrian and then adjust all of the rest of my Roman numerals based on the song being “in” this mode.


Thank you much for the thorough and thoughtful reply and for reviewing the selections!

I’d like to address the conclusions drawn of Get Lucky that seem off to me - that it is never-home and “out all night” :stuck_out_tongue: If Get Lucky is to be taken in A major, the tonic is evinced – f#m7 has the notes F# A C# E which could easily be said to have tonic function considering the entire A triad is there, even voiced in close position. Wouldn’t I IV/ii ii IV still contain a lot of forward motion? It is unclear to me on what basis you deem bar 3 of Get Lucky to be hypermetrically weak while being okay with Cliffs of Dover’s bar 3. There’s no presence of some kind of rhythmic style that syncopates past the downbeat of 3, it is actually quite consistent from bar to bar. I do think steady meter and rhythm do provide a degree of flexibility and freedom which is why I stated my thoughts on Cliffs of Dover were a bit silly at the forefront. I don’t feel bar 3 here to be as hypermetrically weak as compared to say the first half of the progression in Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is” with its unorthodox metric. Or am I misunderstanding what “weak” and “strong” is to be for this?

From all else though I think I’m starting to get the idea. You’d like modes to only be dignified as something to use in mode mixture of a scale perceived to be more important than the others when looking at 7 notes dividing an octave in Heptatonia Prima fashion, and it’s not about simple semantics between “mode” and “scale.” Although I find it weird you’d conceive “mode mixture within a mode” when earlier you said “Mixolydian scale” in reference to I bVII. An issue with this is with keeping the minor key distinction, although it is in essence another scale with an unique arrangement of intervals in the octave that is just known from borrowing conventions from major to bring a perceived stability to it. So this reduction seems hesitant and non-committal.

I understand that the major-anchored convention is scholarly used and accepted, and I actually do like it as a form of shorthand when communicating with those who I may know are already familiar with differences of scales, but you being used to this academic style guide could be the very thing that has brought you feel and claim that it is an easier approach specifically in relation to teaching. As someone not having spent extended time immersed in it, ease is far from a word I would use to describe it and I’ll try to elaborate why.

The minor label is redundant - there’s no point to the label of minor for say, i iv bIII bVII when the quality of the third degree is indicated by lowercase numeral i or dash (I- ), and flats are used in relation to major. As well, the use of flats in terms of major as if every chord is borrowed from Aeolian would suggest the I has been altered rather than inflect that we’re looking at a different kind of key. I feel I might as well scribble out the minor list from my circle of fifths print since it’s so suggestive that, if tonic is A, I’m to be looking at the 3-sharp signature. We could follow the trend of reduction away from autonomous scales even further and replace numerals with a scheme that refers to semitones in 12TET - like 0 2- 4- 5 7 9- 11o to represent the diatonic chords of our universal key, while not impeding on the ability to use the notation for other sets. This prospective [reverb+delay] nomenclature of the future [/fx] has the potential to satisfy both our contrary perspectives but it comes at the price of being completely disorienting and difficult to find trends and patterns. I’ll write out some simple progression loops in all 3 methods we’re discussing so we get some contrast.

  • 12TET

  • 0 7 9- 5

  • 0 9- 2- 7

  • 0- 10 3 5

  • 0- 5 2- 7-

  • 0- 1 3 1

  • 0- 3 1 10-

  • 0 7 9- 2

  • 0 4- 2 11-

  • 0 9- 10 5

  • 0 5 7- 10

  • 0- 10 8 10

  • 0- 5- 8 7

  • Universal Key Popular Style

  • I V VI- IV

    • I VI- II- V
    • I- bVII bIII IV
  • I- IV II- V-

  • I- bII bIII bII

  • I- bIII bII VII-

  • I V VI- II

  • I III- II VII-

  • I VI- bVII IV

  • I IV V- bVII

  • I- bVII bVI bVII

  • I- IV- bVI V

Common Practice with Autonomous Scales


    • I V vi IV
    • I vi ii V

    • i VII III IV
    • i IV ii v

    • i II III II
    • i III II vii

    • I V vi II
    • I iii II vii

    • I vi VII IV
  • I IV v VII


    • i VII VI VII
    • i iv VI V

Using subcategories to make some uniformity within the actual notation when it is used looks more intuitive and conducive to understanding to me. One can associate numerals to certain harmonic functions regardless of them being uppercase or lowercase (such as seen in one of Biamonte’s diagrams) and can clearly see for which cases such convention is broken without bogging by confusing extraneous symbols. You can point out reasons why major should be king with its stability in acoustic physics and strong influence in musical psychology and all that, but that would devalue music as an art form for expression that will not always generate familiar pleasing noises in perfect balance. Musicians themselves will be inclined to use the notation, and for them to find alterations with an inconsistency of where and how they’re used from song to song, when it rather should be explicitly noted another scale is at work, can be disincentivizing from exploring the amazing amount of possibility in 12TET alone and make it all the more likely they give up on implementing anything unorthodox with pitches for their personal expression, and just spew out I V vi IV because everyone else is. That’s not painting on a canvas, that’s coloring by number. Sure, one artist may color with glow in the dark neon while another may do pastel, but creativity is still limited by complications in comprehending the common threads of what is seen and hesitance to branch out beyond Heptatonia Prima because of the arbitrary crown put on a single scale.

I argue that compartmentalization (colloquial, not psychological) is known for making things easier to manage and is applicable here, in the way one may have a drawer to keep socks in, opposed to having socks interspersed within a pile of miscellanea. I would have assumed this is some kind of known principle in pedagogy.


I definitely think the F#m chord (or F#m7 chord) could be considered tonic, and I said that in my original post. It is certainly the most stable chord in the progression. But just because it has the notes of the tonic triad does not make it tonic.

Traditionally speaking, bar 1 of a 4-bar hypermeter is the most strong, bar 3 the next strong (but weak with respect to bar 1), and 2 and 4 the weakest. I’m OK with tonic chords happening in any hypermetric location, so I’m not sure what you’re arguing.

I’m not sure what your example of I IV/ii ii IV is trying to prove. (Also, why wouldn’t we just call that progression I V ii IV?) Sure it contains forward motion, but having the strongest bar NOT be tonic, the chord progression contains more forward motion. Most prechorus sections are structured according to this strategy, and they push forward to the chorus very strongly as a result. Again, this is a commonly-known feature of chord organization and rock music.

You seem to be conflating “key” and “scale” (or “key” and “mode”). Those are two very different concepts. A minor key is NOT in essence another scale. It is a collection of relationships between harmonic entities (among many other things). This is why we expect a major V chord in minor keys yet a bIII and bVII chord as well. The concept of key is quite complicated, scale much less so.

The major-anchored convention is called the “popular” style of notation and was developed and first employed by jazz, pop, and rock musicians (who now use it as their main means of notating harmony), long before it was adopted in academia. So there is no grounds to say I prefer it just because I’m in academia.

You are indeed correct that the label of “major” or “minor” for the key becomes somewhat redundant for the pop style of Roman numerals. That is kind of the whole point. Mixture is too great and prevalent to use a Roman numeral system that is tied strongly to traditional distinctions between major and minor (or on modal collections). My whole point is that songs which HookTheory users identify as minor keys have been employing a different system of Roman numerals, which is not the way working musicians or academics chart songs.

Again, I’m not trying to argue for the primacy of major keys or major scales, based on the harmonic series or anything of that nature. The pop style of Roman numerals simply uses the major scale to label harmonies as a convenient reference point. It is exactly because we want to better keep track of all those different harmonies - all those colors you talk about in your last paragraph - that we use this method.


I said it was tonic functioning - very strongly at that should it be A, as these Riemannian parallels for substitution usually only share two notes in common with the triad. I just submitted an analysis that employs this; check out the pre-chorus. One would expect a song constrained in natural minor to follow bVI bVII with i, but in this it is followed with bIII and colors it with a passing tone before revealing the true tonic triad, the latter not a necessary part of the behavior. The verse’s bIII on bar 1 can also be of note. This is why the seemingly unintuitive sequence of V/vi IV works well by my understanding.

The IV/ii is to account for that desire to move you mentioned. The ii is in the strongest location as you just confirmed, and ii usually leads to V, as predominant-dominant and not the other way around, unless a reverse progression does work just as well according to some principle?

I’m familiar with the concept of harmonic minor. It raises the 7 for the leading tone known from major for that mentioned expectation of major V. Ascending melodic minor is also similarly influenced by the major scale. So far, I don’t feel that I was incorrect for stating it is a different scale with some standardized conventions from major. “a collection of relationships between harmonic entities” - this is the second time you’ve made a statement like this and not actually offer any details while you’re willing to discuss pretty much all else.
If it’s really that dauntingly elaborate, perhaps you could refer me to a textbook or article so I can get in on this esoteric knowledge?

Fair enough on your revised main point, a thing of convenience has always been how I viewed it, though I didn’t realize before this that it only uses one reference point instead of two; that minor was to be expressed in major. I do hope some kind of toggle feature gets employed on the site at least.


To be honest, I think the Arika song by Anamanaguchi might be better analyzed in the relative major. bIII is fairly prominent if analyzed in the minor key, especially in the bVI-bVII-bIII (i.e., IV-V-I) moves we find in the pre-chorus. This is basically what’s called a “double tonic complex” (after Robert Bailey’s work), wherein the relative major and minor are somewhat fighting for prominence. In these cases, we typically chart the song in the relative major. The “unintuitive” sequence V/vi to IV can simply be understood as deceptive motion in the relative minor.

The ii chord usually leads to V in common-practice music, but there is an entire school of thought (see the work of Paul Carter, Christoper Doll, and Ken Stephenson) that common-practice music works via “progressions”, whereas rock and pop music employs “retrogressions”. In any event, even the I-V-ii progression could be analyzed by a strict follower of Schenker and classical tonal principles simply as a “back-relating dominant.”

You say you are familiar with harmonic minor, but that of course is a scale not a key. I’ll simply refer you to the Wikipedia article on keys and tonality, which clearly states that, “although many musicians confuse key with scale, a scale is an ordered set of notes typically used in a key, while the key is the center of gravity, established by particular chord progressions.” The first sentence of the Wikipedia article is especially pertinent here: "In music theory, the key of a piece usually refers to the tonic note and chord, which gives a subjective sense of arrival and rest. " For more detail, I refer you to the Cambridge History of Western Music Theory, particularly Brian Hyer’s article on Tonality. The behavior of chords in keys and our perception of keys is indeed a dauntingly elaborate and complex topic.


What’s the distinction between the double tonic complex and polytonality/polymodality?

I don’t ever really feel like an expectation is subverted when V/vi IV comes up, actually. Picardy thirds work on me though. Could another possibility for V/vi IV that V/vi is a borrowed chord from harmonic minor with good voice leading to IV? It’d be the only wieldy chord that’s not already in natural minor, right?

“The scale is so named because it is a common foundation for harmonies (chords) used in a minor key.” and “it evolved primarily as a basis for chords” are also statements made on Wikipedia. “minor scale may refer to[…]the functional fusion of natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor scales, as is used in Western classical music” as well, and that is what I was figuring you to reference with how you chose to represent key.

I have read the article on key before, and I got the same impression I did before when looking again, that the term feels somehow hollow as it’s explained in foggy conjecture. What I can gather is that it’s a label on the musical medium (or place more appropriate word here) for functional harmony, secondary harmony, and mode mixture in tonal music, but doesn’t specify why these are exclusive properties that Ionian or Aeolian can’t handle. Looking at the opposite, atonality, the definition is “not written in any key or mode” leaving me all the more flustered with the opacity on the topic. I will however give that book a chance in hopes it offers more concrete insight.

Thank you for the tip on retrogression, that will also be something I’ll explore.

And, just something out of the blue here - I’m curious about Neo-Riemannian Theory. Are you able to tell me anything about it, and do you know if I should be wary of any weakness with its methodology or whatnot before I commit to trying to figure out what in the world is going on there?



Polytonality is music that can be heard in two separate keys simultaneously, such as found in the music of Stravinsky. Double-tonic refers to the fusion of two keys into one, often manifest in the ambiguouity between relative keys. But they are similar concepts.

V/vi to IV could also be simply analyzed as III to IV, which is a typical root progression. No reason to necessarily analyze the III chord as a secondary dominant, especially if you don’t hear it that way and it is not setting up any expectation for the minor tonic (which it doesn’t seem to be for you).

If it helps, think of modes as being generally pure entities, keys as including lots of mixture. Once you start allowing lots of mixture in modes, it opens up a Pandora’s box of analytical possibilities. Is I-bVII-V Ionian with the mixture of bVII or Mixolydian with the mixture of V? Let’s just call it a major key, in which both bVII and V are typical chords.

With regard to neo-Riemannian theory, check out Guy Capuzzo’s 2004 Music Theory Spectrum article, “Neo-Riemannian Theory and the Analysis of Pop-Rock Music”. His article will include more citations on the analytical system if you want to dig deeper.


I’m grateful for the clarifications and reading recommendation, thank you.

However, at the risk of being exasperating at this point, I still feel there’s more discussion to be had on modes.

Aeolian harmony may be used with mode mixture.” I take this statement to be derived from the Richard Middleton citation, but the text is not easily accessed for me, so I can’t tell what merit this has. It may be moot as I do recognize you said in general, and I do agree it tends to be done sparingly. I can appreciate how key may be a more apt approach for music with a lot of varied non-diatonic activity in lengthier progressions encroaching more towards chromaticism, but that is a descriptor that doesn’t really stand out in my mind when thinking about popular music.

Presuming that your progression is repeating, I would confidently place it as Ionian on the basis of cadence. It is not easily mistaken for the pseudo-cadences of other modes: the idea being to juxtapose a chord accentuating the modal scale’s unique features (such as raised sixth of Dorian in relation to Aeolian) to the approached tonic to make modal context, rather than striving for maximal tension or propulsion. This doesn’t appear to be all that fringe of a concept: 1, 2, 3
I’d consider Ionian to share in the convention, since although it shares V in common with Lydian which might actually use it without the maj7, Lydian has to sort of nag at you with a #4 (#4 5 2 counterpoint in chorus) to be convincing when it presents a leading tone, making Ionian’s qualifier the simple absence of that conditioning.

The modes can indeed step on each others toes, but more in the way of identification of tonic. That’s led me to feel that taking melodic, rhythmic, and metric considerations a good practice, albeit it’s more observationally involving than some might like.

Going back to Drive Hard  (thanks for catching that V missed by my reckless pasting of the chords by the way,)
“the sixth scale degree is often raised in minor music, just as it is often lowered in the Dorian mode (see melodic minor)” implies the altered minor scales can be applied to any minor mode, justifying the V that leads into a brief musical break for dramatic effect. The prominent approach to the minor tonic throughout the song is instead with IV, which is in line with the above principle. Ergo, when it’s either the bVI or IV of the progression that’s mixed in, it would seem to make more sense to consider the less disruptively placed bVI chromatic mediant doing its chromatic mediant thing to be the pick.

The same paradigm, adapted to Mixolydian, can be seen retrograded in the intro and pre-chorus of Wreck It Wreck-It Ralph, where a leading tone does not appear until the grandiose build up to the chorus, inflecting a modulation.

It may not carry the efficiency of streamlining to keys, but in my quest to find how harmony contributes to making music tick I’ve found the appreciation of modes far more insightful than how generalized keys provide a redundant piece of information: whether or not the tonic triad has a minor third.


You’re right, the Wikipedia article does say “Aeolian harmony may be used with mode mixture.” But note that the citations in the Wikipedia article (as of today) are from 1985 and 1990. (That 2002 date is only the date of the reprint.) That’s ancient history in terms of music theory scholarship on rock music. In fact, I would go so far to say that the study of rock music as its own discipline within music theory did not fully begin to branch off from musicology until the late 90s, catalyzed by John Covach’s seminal articles from 1997 and 1999. As I noted above, analyzing rock harmony in purely modal terms was a method that was toyed around with in the 90s, but most modern rock scholars have abandoned that technique, preferring to see rock music as a style in which non-diatonic chords (some of which but not all of which can be seen to derive from modes) are abundant.

Again, I don’t have a problem with seeing moments in rock harmony through a modal lens. That’s a valuable perspective, no doubt, and I talk about modal qualities of harmony often in my own scholarship on rock music. But when it comes to the Roman numeral system we use (which is my primary point in this long forum thread), it makes things much simpler and much more clear using the popular style of Roman numeral notation, because songs are not forced into certain modal categories by default.

You are free to define the Ionian mode in the same way that theorists define a major key, but music theory defines those terms differently, in part based on the long history of those terms. The term “major key” means much more than just that the tonic triad has a major third. It captures all of the “melodic, rhythmic, and metric considerations” (which you care so much about) that go into our perception of that tonic.

At the end of the day, the diatonic modes are just too limited. I can say that i-IV is Dorian, but then what do I say about I-iv? We can say it’s a mode of melodic minor, but I think that unnecessarily complicates what is essentially a simple and common harmonic relationship.


I wouldn’t take issue with popular style numerals’ consequential obfuscation of non-diatonics if it were at least coupled with a denotation of what the foundational scale is. In the context of Hooktheory, assuming they don’t remove mode selection, I’ve no basis for criticism. I’m trying to figure out now why you feel such a denotation to be extraneous and complicated rather than offering of an explanatory nuance, even after saying you do talk about modes yourself.

To get more philosophical here, songs are not categorized by default, period. They’re the wobbling of molecules that our ears can pick up on, to oversimplify perhaps. The point being taxonomy and structure lay in the mind of the sender/recipient. So I get the feeling that’s not what you meant to say as it’s rather non-sequitur.

Nonetheless, to continue on the train of thought, the harmonic series of generally any tone not coming out of an additive synthesizer does in a way condition an inclination for us to feel normativity in pentatonic scales primarily, evident in history, and certain elaborations upon them. Yet, neither of us feel a reduction to just five numerals to relate everything else towards would better serve anyone’s comprehension.

“Alterations” done to chords arranged in a common root movement (assumption on what you mean with common harmonic relationship; you didn’t elaborate) is a prominent contribution (just as relevant with other differences contributing to genre: tempo, instrumentation etc.) to far differing aural experiences, as they would inflect a departure from the “norm” ; Compare Alanis Morissette’s “Uninvited,” Jack Wall’s “Slim Chances” and Blu Cantrell’s “Hit 'Em Up Style.” Revealing an underlying construction of a scale of consistent presence within them thus feels more explanatory than confusing to me despite the amount of times you will insist that it is somehow more complicated.

That’s not to say I would never change my mind, nor am I pressuring you to give a full out music lecture to try to. Just that, perhaps your statements come off strangely vague for a situation in that tonality and modality are to be intensely different.

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If it helps, I always change every mode back to major as I am viewing Hooks. This means it is important to me that songs are notated modally (School of Rock, Sweet Child of Mine etc) so that I can easily view them as V,IV,I songs