Universal key

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Different notations
Chord Function Numerical Roman
numeral
Tonic T 1 I
Subdominant S 4 IV
Dominant D 5 V

The universal key or universal scale is a concept employed in music theory in which specific notes or chord symbols in a key signature are replaced with numbers or Roman numerals, allowing for a discussion describing relationships between notes or chords that can be universally applied to all key signatures.

For example, in the key of E-flat major, the notes of the scale would be replaced like so:

  • E becomes scale degree 1
  • F becomes scale degree 2
  • G becomes scale degree 3
  • A becomes scale degree 4
  • B becomes scale degree 5
  • C becomes scale degree 6
  • D becomes scale degree 7

Triads (common practice style)[edit]

When used with chord symbols, the Roman numerals represent the root of a triad built on the associated scale step. In music theory based on the practices of the Common Practice Period and its derivations the chord numerals are often written in upper case for chords in the major family, and in lower case for chords in the minor family, with the usual "m" or "—" minor chord quality suffix omitted outright:

  • E becomes I
  • Fm7 becomes ii7
  • Gm7 becomes iii7
  • Amaj7 becomes IV maj7
  • B7 becomes V7
  • Cm7 becomes vi7
  • Dø7 becomes viiø7

When representing the triads rooted in a minor key, the upper or lower case of the numerals indicate both its chord quality and that the key is minor:

  • Cm7 becomes i7
  • Dø7 becomes iiø7
  • E becomes III
  • Fm7 becomes iv7
  • Gm7 becomes v7
  • Amaj7 becomes VI maj7
  • B7 becomes VII7


A major drawback of using this method is its lack of use of accidentals. While in the numeric system, flats and sharps can be represented either by the use of fractions (e.g. an A natural in the scale above becomes 4½) or, more commonly in written text, by inserting an accidental before the number (e.g. the same note becomes 5 or 4).

Triads (jazz and popular style)[edit]

In music theory aimed towards jazz and popular music, all triads are represented by upper case numerals, followed by a symbol to indicate if it is not a major chord (e.g. "-" for minor or "ø" for half-diminished):

  • Emaj7 becomes I maj7
  • F -7 becomes II -7
  • G -7 becomes III -7
  • Amaj7 becomes IV maj7
  • B7 becomes V7
  • C -7 becomes VI -7
  • Dø7 becomes VIIø7

When representing the triads rooted in a minor key, accidentals are used to indicate the chromatic alteration from the assumed major key roots indicated by numerals that don't have accidentals:

E- (minor):

  • E -7 becomes I -7
  • Fmø7 becomes IIø7
  • Gmaj7 becomes IIImaj7 (the assumed pitch for the root of a III numeral in E is G, and the is required to indicate that, in E-, this chord is rooted on G)
  • A -7 becomes IV -7
  • B -7 becomes V -7
  • Cmaj7 becomes VImaj7
  • D7 becomes VII7

This will frequently result in numerals whose accidentals are different than those of the actual root note, as they are referring to a change from the assumed pitch and not an absolute pitch:

D- (Minor):

  • D -7 becomes I -7
  • E -ø7 becomes IIø7
  • F maj7 becomes III maj7 (the assumed pitch for the root of a III numeral in D is F, and the is required to indicate that, in D-, this chord is rooted on F)
  • G -7 becomes IV -7
  • A -7 becomes V -7
  • Bmaj7 becomes VI maj7
  • C7 becomes VII7

Further reading[edit]