RATIONALE AND OBJECTIVES The purpose of this study was to establish a magnetic resonance (MR) imaging standard for quantification of the muscles of the rotator cuff. METHODS Parasagittal T1-weighted turbo spin-echo images of the shoulder were obtained in 70 asymptomatic subjects (35 women, 35 men; age range: 21-70 years, mean: 45 years). Standardized cross-sectional areas (rotator cuff muscle areas divided by the area of the supraspinatus fossa) and standardized signal intensities (related to signal intensities of the teres major muscle) were measured and compared with 30 patients with different stages of rotator cuff tears and 10 patients with glenohumeral instability. In addition, a so-called tangent sign was evaluated with the hypothesis that a healthy supraspinatus muscle crosses a line (tangent) drawn through the superior borders of the scapular spine and the superior margin of the coracoid. RESULTS Cross-sectional areas of the muscles of the rotator cuff were variable in asymptomatic subjects. Cross-sectional areas (but not signal intensities) did discriminate patients with different stages of rotator cuff tears from asymptomatic subjects. The tangent sign was negative in all asymptomatic subjects but positive in four and nine of 10 patients with medium and large rotator cuff tears, respectively. CONCLUSIONS A method for quantification of the muscles of the rotator cuff using MR imaging is presented. Cross-sectional areas can be used for quantification of the muscles of the rotator cuff. The tangent sign is a useful MR sign for atrophy of the supraspinatus muscle.