Principles of Notation for Harmonic Analysis


There are many approaches to the format of harmonic analysis notation. Each analyst typically develops their own set of preferences often very similar to the style of their teachers. In many ways, these styles are just like different accents of a somewhat similar language, though in some cases, theorists use different (and possibly incompatible) languages. The information below represents my "accent" and the "language" I speak is one heavily influenced by a linear approach to harmony as opposed to a more vertical approach, though it includes aspects of linear (melodic) and vertical (harmonic) thinking. If you're one of my students, please use this page as a reference point for the assignments that you turn in for class. In your own, personal analyses, feel free to develop your own accent that suits your personal preferences and interests. Just remember that if you start your own language, you might be the only person that understands it 😉 which makes sharing your ideas very challenging.

Less Roman numerals when possible

It's easy for an analysis to become cluttered and difficult to read. To make the analysis more readable, avoid redundancy. Don't rewrite the same Roman numeral if the Roman numeral hasn't changed. Just assume that the previous Roman numeral is still in play until otherwise indicated.

If the figures change but the Roman numeral stays the same, only write what changed, which are the figures:

Special Notation (brackets, parentheses, and quotation marks)

Parentheses (implied)

Use parentheses if a Roman numeral is implied but not literally stated. You might find this useful when a passage consists of a single melody where the harmony is clear to you after trying out a few possible harmonizations, but the melody itself is missing key information, like the root of the chord.

Square Brackets [ courtesy restatement ]

If there is a system or page break, or if it otherwise seems important to restate a Roman numeral that is ongoing, put the repeated one in square brackets to communicate that the previous symbol is still happening.

Quotation Marks "apparent"

Quotation marks can be used to say "I know this musical event is here and that the label is accurate in a vacuum, however, in this context I don't hear it functioning the way I expect it to in this style. In fact, I actually think some other symbol captures my interpretation better." This may happen when the chord is functioning in a more linear fashion, like in the middle of a sequence. In these situations, it would be confusing to see the Roman numeral at odds with the sound of the music without clarifying your opinion with quotation marks. If you use these, you're essentially saying, "I know it looks like this chord, but I think it's better to understand its function as the result of some other (typically linear) process."

Roman Numerals and Figured Bass

Harmonic analysis has two components, a Roman numeral and, often, figured-bass symbols (written with Arabic numerals). Even when no figured-bass symbols are written, there are implied figures that are not notated because they are so common that it would be laborious to write them all out. The table below shows the common figured-bass symbols and the implied figures that go with them which are in parentheses

Common Symbols (no figures)
Common Symbols with implied figures (none)

Though Roman numerals and figures appear to be one symbol, they project two different pieces of information, one is analytical, and the other is factual.

Roman numerals

The Roman numeral is the analytical component and it represents the analyst’s opinion of what they "hear" as the chord's root. So, a Roman numeral V in the key of C means the analyst believes the chord's root is G, regardless of what happens to be in the bass.


figured-bass symbols, on the other hand, have a literal meaning. The numbers listed indicate intervals above the written (or implied) bass note. So, if you see the figures 4 3, that means you can expect to see a 3rd and a 4th above the written bass note at that time and, due to the historical convention of implied figures, it would also have a 6th above the written bass note as shown in the table above. You might have heard these referred to as "inversion symbols" or something similar, however, that's not strictly accurate. They are always simply figured-bass symbols, but the particular combinations shown in the table above, have become associated with the concept of chordal inversion over time, but their meaning is still always, intervals above the bass note, it just makes sense, as a shorthand, to associate them with particular chordal inversions. In fact, figured-bass traditions were in practice a good hundred years before the concept of chordal inversion was formally introduced by Jean-Philippe Rameau in 1722.

Six-Four Chords

Six-four chords embellish more structural chords. They shouldn't get their own Roman numeral, instead they are shown in relation to some other Roman numeral. The following notations can be used to indicate the type of six-four chord. Use figured-bass symbols as usual and then single letter to identify its type below (C, A, P, or N). You can also write out the whole word. As usual, lines between figured-bass symbols are used to show stepwise motion between two notes (see the section on "Lines between figures vs no lines" for more details).

Cadential Six Four V V C
Arpeggiating Six Four A
Passing Six Four P P
Neighbor Six Four I I N

Embellishing Tones

Writing on the score vs. writing with figures

Embellishing tones can be indicated by labeling on the score or by using figured-bass symbols with lines. The downside of writing them on the score, is that it tends to get really messy, making it more difficult to read the actual music in the future. The downside of using only figures is that there's probably not space to specify the type of embellishing tone taking place.

With figures

To show embellishments with figures, simply find the interval from the bass note to the embellishing tone and just make sure to include enough context to communicate what's happening. You're essentially writing the same number of notes that your slur would have covered if you were writing on the score. If there are accidentals, use arrows to show the direction the note was altered. Up arrow for raised, and down arrow for lowered.

Neighbor 3-4-3
Passing 3-2-1
Suspension 4-3
Two Neighbors 5-6-5
Two Passing 3-4-5
Longer example 3-4-5-4-3-2-1-7-1
Neighbor with Accidental 3-↑2-3
Chromatic passing 3-4-↑4-5

On the score

When writing on the score use slurs, when possible, to indicate which tones, the embellishing tone(s) is(are) embellishing and then label the type of embellishing tone using an abbreviated name of the embellishing tone type (p for passing, n for neighbor, etc.). If it's impractical to do this (like at a system break), simply circle the notehead of the embellishing tone and label the type.

Pedal Tones

Write the scale degree number of the pedal tone followed by a line. The pedal is over when it doesn't sound like there are two distinct harmonic layers occurring so you can end the line at that point.

Implied Events

Implied means that the musical situation gives the impression that it is a version of some common paradigm, yet it is missing an expected component of the paradigm being compared. It's as if the passage reminds the analyst of a paradigm even though it's demonstrably different.