Roman numeral analysis, and “four chords that made a million”

[No, I’m not dead yet — just absolutely snowed under in my day job. Here is a little blog post to keep the blog alive.]

Anybody who has ever played off a jazz lead sheet or ‘fake book’ is familiar with chord symbols like G (G major triad), Cm (C minor triad), D7 (D dominant seventh), G/D (G major triad with a D in the bass), and the like.

One ‘abstraction level’ above is the so-called ‘Roman numeral analysis’ which is found in music theory texts, particularly classical ones. It considers not the absolute chords but their relative position (and diatonic function) in the scale. For example, a 12-bar major blues in G corresponds to the progression G-C-G-D-C , and in C# to C#-F#-C#-G#-F#, but in Roman numeral notation, both would be I-I-IV-I-V-IV in their respective keys. Likewise, a minor blues would be i-i-iv-i-v-iv regardless of the key it is in.[*]

The system was invented by the eccentric classicist composer and music theoretician (teacher of Carl Maria von Weber) in the late 1700s. It is not a system that comes naturally to people with absolute pitch (since the same progression in different keys really sounds different to us) but it is an excellent ‘meta’ tool for describing commonalities between what may be very different compositions. Effectively, it is a form of notation that stresses function (as in ‘functional harmony’) — tonic (I), mediant (III), subdominant (IV), dominant (V), etc.

As already seen in the blues example above, major chords are indicated by uppercase Roman numerals, and minor chords by lowercase ones. Seventh, ninth,… chords take digit qualifiers just like in conventional chord notation, e.g., i9, Vb9, etc. A ‘+’ and a ‘°’ indicate augmented and diminished chords, respectively.

Inversions are indicated by suffixes like Ib (tonic, 2nd inversion) and V7d (dominant, third inversion) although I personally find  the ‘b’ confusing due to its similarity to a ‘flat’ sign and prefer I/V and V7/IV, respectively. (In C major, these would correspond to C/G and G7/F, respectively)

Finally, out-of-scale chords are prefixed by accidentals # and ♭. For example, a Neapolitan chord in a piece otherwise in a minor scale would be written♭II

Rick Beato has a video here about ‘the four chords that killed pop music’.

What he really means is the progression I-vi-IV-V and its permutations like vi-IV-I-V, which some producers seem to think are nearly a prerequisite for hit singles. In Rick’s video, you can hear a plethora of examples in a wide variety of keys and styles (what do Taylor Swift and Iron Maiden otherwise have in common?! Or the choruses of Roxette’s ‘Listen To Your Heart’ and The Beatles’s ‘Let It Be’?). At a higher abstraction level, all of them boil down to just that pattern I-vi-IV-V, straight up or rearranged.

To be sure, if one is willing to escape the tyranny of simple triads and power chords, even I-vi-IV-V can be made interesting… And if one is not (e.g., because on a distorted guitar more complex chords quickly get muddy), then changing the scale to a more exotic one helps…

For instance, here is a video touting the Mixolydian mode as the ‘secret sauce’ of AC/DC

Leaving aside that AC/DC, while fun to play, is hardly a model of musical sophistication: What is he talking about? Let’s compare the diatonic triads on the major scale with those on the Mixolydian scale (more correctly: the Mixolydian mode[*]):

major (Ionian):   I – ii – iii – IVV – vi – vii°

Mixolydian: I – ii – iii° – IV – v – vi – VII

Yes, the major triads in the major scale are the familiar tonic, subdominant, and dominant — but the mixolydian one has them on tonic, subdominant, and leading tone! This automatically invites riffs like A-A-A….D-D-G…D-D-G-D-D-G-D-A-A (“Highway To Hell”) or E–D-A/C# (“Back In Black”), or …

They also use the Dorian mode fairly freely (“Hells’ Bells”, “Shot Down In Flames”,..)

Dorian: i – ii – ♭III – IV – v – vi° – VII

Now the Mixolydian and Dorian modes are, of course, very common in Anglo(-American) folk music — but yes, much of the character of different scales and modes derives from the chords progressions they generate. I will elaborate in this in a future post. Meanwhile, here are the biting observations of one of my musical heroes, Steven Wilson, on the music industry:

[*] The “Nashville number system” used by some country and gospel singers (including by Elvis Presley’s backup singers the Jordanaires) is a variant that uses Arabic instead of Roman numerals, with minor chords being indicated by a dash (e.g. 6- instead of vi). It was invented to facilitate transposition to fit the vocal range of the singer being accompanied.

[**] Technically, a scale is a sequence of notes/intervals covering an octave, a mode a different choice of tonal center (‘starting point’) among them. For example, the G mixolydian mode is generated from the C major scale simply by starting at G rather than C.


Saturday night music: “Prelude to a million years” by Tony Banks


Tony Banks was my first rock hero, as Genesis’s keyboardist for their entire existence as well as the writer of many of their signature songs. Quiet, shy, and introvert in person, he was the one-man orchestra that put the S in ‘symphonic rock’. He has issued a number of underrated solo albums (‘A curious feeling’ and ‘Still’ both have gems on them), but in semi-retirement he has devoted himself to writing orchestral neo-classical music. The results sound much like film music, with echoes of John Barry and Bernard Herrmann, and occasionally of Ralph Vaughan Williams and other late-Romantic English composers. Tony has released two albums of his orchestral work so far, “Seven” and “Six” (the titles refer to the number of pieces on each). This is a track from his upcoming third orchestral album, “Five”, taken from his official YouTube channel.


12 Rules for Life: a review of Jordan Peterson’s book

My guest post over at Sarah Hoyt’s blog.


Valentine’s Day Promotion: On Different Strings and Winter Into Spring both FREE today and tomorrow

In honor of Valentine’s Day, the novel On Different Strings (“A genre-busting love story” as one review site described it) and the romance novella Winter Into Spring are both FREE today and tomorrow


Adding X-ray content to Kindle books: a guide for the impatient

My guest post at Mad Genius Club on how to add “X-ray” content (e.g., character biography lookup and concordance) to your published Kindle book.

Mad Genius Club

(This is a guest post by author Nitay Arbel)

One of the nicer features of reading an ebook on a Kindle (or in the Kindle app on a smartphone or tablet) is that you can press and hold on a word  and see its definition, or on a place name and see a brief description. Many of the more recent books go one step further, and add “X-ray” content: one can click on a character name, say, and get a brief description of the character.

View original post 1,284 more words


The memo, and what it implies

Not only has the damning memo been released (Francis Turner blogs here at length on what it implies), but now the “lost” text messages between FBI agent Peter Strzok and his lover have been recovered.

A journalist at Forbes published a timeline, which now seems to have been memory-holed by the paper [UPDATE: seems it is back]— but a cached copy is available here. Mollie Ziegler Hemingway weighs in here: NEW: Criminal Referral Confirms Nunes Memo’s Explosive Claims Of FISA Abuse.

What emerges is something that makes Nixon look like a naughty boy in comparison, and Watergate a schoolyard prank. (See also this, h/t masgramondou.)

In this context, the conspiratorial-sounding term “deep state” is often uttered, even by people as level-headed as Instapundit. Does this refer to some mysterious, nefarious, octopus-like conspiracy at the heart of the federal government? No, it is merely the current US term for a phenomenon with which Europeans (particularly the French) are intimately familiar: the “permanent bureaucracy” of career civil servants. Governments come and go, and the unelected permanent bureaucracy stays in place.

In an ideal world, the professionalism of longtime civil servants should act as a moderating factor and ‘sanity check’ on the less well-considered ideas of elected officials, as well as stop power-grabbing overreach on their part. In the real world, at least as far back as Plato, one faces the question most pithily asked by Juvenal: “who watches the watchmen themselves?”

My contempt for the loser in the 2016 electoral campaign is bottomless: she seems to have all the moral restraint of Lucretia Borgia combined with a peerless capacity for self-pity (read this serialized fisking of her book if you have a strong stomach). In contrast, I am at least willing to entertain the notion that the FBI agents desperate to exonerate her, and find fault with Trump, had sincerely convinced themselves that they were trying to save the Republic from a disaster. There is of course, paraphrasing C. S. Lewis, no worse tyrant than one who sincerely believes his actions are for your own good.

The career civil service bureaucracy in France is notoriously incestuous, with such a large percentage of senior civil servants being graduates of just one academy, the ENA (National Administration School) that some French quip about being ruled by “l’ENArquie”. The ENA is one of France’s élite “Great Schools” that inhabit the tier above mere ‘universités’ in that country’s peculiar system. Its students are a truly elite crowd selected by standardized exams graded anonymously (and hence free of favoritism and reverse discrimination). However, this quasi-Mandarin monoculture ensures a homogeneity in outlook, and only exacerbates the natural tendency of any governing elite to conflate its own collective self-interest with the interest of the nation.

Their American counterparts are a good deal less of an elite, and a good deal more of a ‘credentialed gentry’, to use Angelo Codevilla’s term. Yet they are at least as cocksure as their French counterpart, and at least as averse to an outsider ‘not one of us’ upsetting the applecart. It is, therefore, no surprise that Clinton, Inc. and the Chicago machine behind Obama would have found willing accomplices.

Nobody in their right mind would want to go back entirely to the ‘spoils system’. And there are still people working in the Federal apparatus that it is a privilege to know and who are both highly competent and dedicated to their country.  It is, however, well past time for a thorough housecleaning. It is even more past time for those politicians who suborned elements—all the way to the top—in the country’s highest law enforcement authority to be called out, disgraced, and ostracized from political life forever. I used to dismiss the characterization of the Democrat Party as “a legalized crime syndicate” as irresponsible hyperbole. Used to being the operative word. Now I wonder instead: if it really were one, what would they be doing differently?


UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers!

UPDATE 2: More from Mollie Ziegler H.: How the media buried two FBI stories yesterday. “Where journalistic instincts go to die”, indeed.




Non-Jews who attend Jewish Sabbath and especially High Holiday services in synagogue often comment on their interminable character.

In contrast, Jewish ceremonies for life cycle events tend to be short and to the point. (Bar mitzvahs, and bat mitzvahs in liberal synagogues, are a special case: the bar mitzvah boy simply is given a role of honor in a pre-existing long prayer service.) A Jewish marriage ceremony, for instance, rarely takes more than 15-30 minutes before the festivities start.

Thus also, the formal religious part of a Jewish burial does not last very long. Typically, most of the time is dedicated to hespedim (eulogies) of the deceased, usually by family members, close friends, or colleagues.

Burial customs may differ between communities: for instance, while coffins are the norm in most Diaspora communities, in Israel only simple shrouds are used. (Men are often buried in their prayer shawls.) The central parts, however, are quite universal: burial rather than cremation, kria (rending of the clothes) by immediate relatives and spouse, the recitation of certain psalms, mourners assisting in filling in the grave, and the request by the rabbi or head of the burial society for forgiveness from the deceased for any slights, however unintentional.

One prayer, however, is so thoroughly associated with Jewish mourning that it has nearly become a synecdoche for it: the Kaddish (“Sanctification”), or more precisely the version termed “Orphan’s Kaddish” (kaddish yetomim) or Mourners’ Kaddish. Remarkably, not only was that prayer not originally intended as a mourner’s prayer, but it does not contain a single reference to death or the hereafter. [*] Moreover, it is not even in Hebrew (except for a single phrase at the end) but in Aramaic, the lingua franca in the Middle East two millennia ago.  It was, hence, a prayer meant to be understood by all who recited it, including those whose Hebrew had become a little rusty. [The mind wonders, if it should therefore today be recited in the lingua franca of our time, namely, English?]

Versions of the Kaddish prayer occur throughout synagogue services. A short version (the “half-kaddish”) is used to demarcate sections; a longer version (“full kaddish”) was originally used to end the service, though a “coda” of additional prayers has been added later. The “Rabbis’ Kaddish”, which invokes blessings over scholars, is used to mark the end of a study session and, in the synagogue, after readings from the Talmud (Mishna and/or Gemara). At the end of the service, if any mourners are present, the Orphans’ Kaddish is recited.

This is its text rendered in English.


Magnified and Hallowed be His great Name

In the world that He created by His word

And may His kingdom come

In our lives, and in our days, and in the lives of all the House of Israel

Speedily and in our days

And let us say, “Amen”

May His great Name be blessed forever and for the ages of ages

Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, 

Extolled, adorned, adored, and lauded 

Be the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He

Even as He is above and beyond all blessings, hymns, laudations, and consolations

That are uttered in the world

And let us say, “Amen”

May there come great peace from Heaven 

Upon us and upon all His people Israel

And let us say, “Amen”


He Who makes peace on High

May He bring peace upon us

And upon all Israel

[And upon all the world]

And let us say: Amen 


“Even as He is beyond”: yes, one of our most central prayers says G-d is beyond, and hence beyond the need form, the prayers of us mere mortals. Does that mean our prayers are futile? Of course not—but they are for our sake, not for His.

Let me leave the last word to Maurice Ravel. And may the memory of D. daughter of A. be blessed.


[*] There is another prayer, El Male Rachamim/G-d full of mercy, that explicitly references these and asks G-d to admit the soul of the deceased into His presence and to bind it in the bond of [everlasting] life.