Roman Numeral Analysis and Class Game

Students practice and review the fundamental skills of Roman numeral analysis through a competitive question/answer game. 


For students to become comfortable with the fundamental skills of Roman numeral analysis: chord rotation, building chords on scale degrees, functionality within a key and a few voice-leading techniques.

Class: Mus 51a: Tonal Harmony I


Teaching Fellow, Olivia Lucas, designed a game for students to learn and review the fundamental skills of Roman numeral analysis. Roman numeral analysis forms the backbone of much of what is taught in the undergraduate music theory curriculum, and thus, familiarity and agility with its tools and techniques will serve the students well not only in the class, but also in future semesters. 

Prior to the activity, students will have learned the fundamentals of a Roman numeral analysis, a technique for analyzing music. This analytical technique relates chords to the scale degree on which they are based, and uses additional symbols to express inversion and applied functionality. They will already understand how to a) generate a chord when given a roman numeral and key b) identify the correct roman numeral to label a chord in a piece of music, though they will have not necessarily had much practice applying these skills yet.

In this activity, students are put into teams of three and have to work together to answer questions on Roman Numeral Analysis posed by the instructor.


  1. For the first half of the section, the class reviews the relevant terms and techniques that were just covered in lecture.
  2. Then, the instructor breaks the students into two teams, of 3 students each.
  3. These three students must take turns being the team's "scribe" - the person who writes the answer to the problem on the board. The scribe is not allowed to write anything on the board until her/his teammates say what to write. (This ensures that if one student is significantly quicker at solving the problems than the others, there will be turns when s/he must stay quiet and let the others think through the problem.)
  4. The instructor, then, reads out a problem for the teams to solve. The problems will start simple, for example, "what is IV in F major?" When instructed by their teammates, the scribe must write the correct key signature, and the correct chord.
  5. The first team to have the correct answer gets a point. A tally can be kept on the board.
  6. The game proceeds with the scribes rotating and the questions getting more complex, asking them to not only use what they've learned, but put more and more pieces of it together. Later questions would include asking them to write inverted chords, correctly voice-led cadences, or short chord progressions, all from the starting point of the roman numerals. The competitive aspect encourages them to work quickly without losing accuracy, which will in turn help them in completing their assignments and taking quizzes, which are timed.
  7. The game continues for about twenty minutes, and the team with the most points could get a small prize, but this is optional. At the end, five minutes are left for questions. Students can ask questions about anything that came up during the game, or about the upcoming assignment and quiz on the material. The class also reflects, briefly, as a group on the value of using this kind of abstract analysis to examine pieces of tonal music.


There is no tangible product for this activity. However, the students will have achieved greater comfort and agility with material that can otherwise seem dry and technical.

When learning a language, it is often more difficult to memorize vocabulary by starting with the word in the native language and having to produce the equivalent word in the foreign language. In the end, however, this practice is more productive in terms of being able to recall the word when needed. This task is similar, in that it asks the students to produce a chord from a given roman numeral, instead of asking them to affix a label to a given chord. This requires them to think actively about the material to produce an item, rather than react to a given. It requires students to gain control over all aspects of the topic and use them all at the same time - key signature, scale degree, inversion etc. The competitive aspect of the activity encourages them to work quickly without losing accuracy, which will also be of value to them when working on assignments and timed quizzes. Furthermore, this fundamental stage of roman numeral analysis can be technical and dry to some students, and using a game-like setting helps get needed drilling time in while keeping the atmosphere light and teamwork-based. Finally, this activity allows instructors to get a sense of each students level of ease and comfort with the material, as the instructor can see how long it takes to arrive at a solution and where students get stuck.

 Lucas has provided some useful tips for instructors: “Pick the teams ahead of time - this saves time and you might be able to get more evenly matched teams. If at any point during the game, a major issue or point of confusion arises, there is no reason not to pause the game and go over the material in question. The game is meant to be a helpful construct for drilling the material and seeing how the students are managing the techniques - it should not get in the way of explaining things. Have several "levels" of questions at the ready - keep them challenged but not discouraged.”


The chalkboard, and they may reference their notes if they wish.