When we start playing a musical instrument it is quite likely that at some point we come across the word “degree”. But what are scale degrees?
That is the question I will answer today.
Let me start by saying that in this article you will learn the name of the scale degrees, how to identify them and their functions. This is music theory and basic harmony, so it doesn’t matter if you play guitar, piano or ukulele.
It’s common knowledge and you need to know it.
What are scale degrees?
We call scale degree to each note that occupies a position within a scale relative to the tonic. Thus, each note of a scale is a degree.
Let’s see it with an example.
If we take a look at the C major scale (C – D – E – E – F – G – A – B) we will see that each of these notes that we are naming is a degree of this scale.
And we will see as well that there are 7 musical degrees or 8 if we take into account the tonic note at a lower pitch.
Names of the scale degrees
Each of the seven scale degrees we have just seen has an important mission to fulfill. So great is their importance that each of them has been given a name that describes the function it performs within the music scale.
Below is a table with the 7 degrees and their proper name:
|first degree (I)||Tonic|
|Second degree (II)||Supertonic|
|Third degree (III)||Mediant|
|Fourth degree (IV)||Submediant|
|Fifth degree (V)||Dominant|
|Sixth degree (VI)||Superdominante? o Submediant|
|Seventh degree (VII)||Leading Tone o Subtonic|
In addition, and as you can see in the table of scale degrees, the degrees are usually also named with roman numerals, hence I have included them in parentheses.
Examples of music scale degrees
So far it’s all been very theoretical and very nice, but let’s roll up our sleeves and look at the practical application of this concept.
To see the different degrees in more detail let’s take the C major scale again and analyze it in detail:
If we apply the scale degrees names we would have that:
- C would be the first degree (I) or Tonic.
- D the second degree (II) or Supertonic.
- E would be the third degree (III) or Madiant.
- F the fourth degree (IV) or Subdominant.
- G the fifth degree (V) or Dominant.
- A the sixth degree (VI) or Submediant.
- B the seventh degree (VII) or Leading-tone.
- C the eighth degree. The eighth note is the same as the first one, but is at a different pitch (higher).
To become a little more familiar with the scale degrees let’s take another example.
And we are going to see what the degrees of the G major scale are. In other words, What notes in the G Major Scale are.
To do this, we draw again its chart (if you don’t know how the major diatonic scale is formed take a look at this article as it is fundamental):
If we apply again the name of the scale degrees we have that:
- G would be the first degree (I) or Tonic.
- A would be the second degree (II) or Supertonic.
- B would be the third degree (III) or Mediant.
- C the fourth degree (IV) or Subdominant.
- D the fifth degree (V) or Dominant.
- E the sixth degree (VI) or Submediant.
- F# the seventh degree (VII) or Leading-tone.
- G the eighth degree. The eighth note is the same as the first one, but is at a different pitch (higher).
You may find it curious that the F note is sharp. Is there something wrong? No, in musical scales it is normal that sharps or flats appear.
After all they are also musical notes, aren’t they?
By the way, although now we will see it in more detail, I advance you that if you are starting to learn music theory, it is important to know the third and fifth of each key. The reason is that with them we will begin to form our first music chords.
Understanding the scale degrees chart
At this point we know what is a scale degree but we have yet to learn each of them.
The first degree (I) or Tonic is the first musical note of the scale and the tonal center, the balance. All tensions created and resolved are always in relation to the tonic.
For this reason, most of the songs end on the tonic.
The second degree (II) or Supertonic is one whole step (or two semitones) above the tonic. This degree does not appear in all scales.
For example, the minor pentatonic scale does not include it. That is, of the 5 notes, the supertonic is not one of the minor pentatonic scale degrees.
The third degree (III) or Mediant is so called because it is halfway between the tonic and the dominant. Thank to the third degree we know if a scale or chord is major or minor.
The fourth degree (IV) or Subdominant, is so called because it also has a great influence on the composition, although less than the dominant degree.
If you look at the image below, the subdominant is at the same distance from the tonic as the tonic is from the dominant.
The fifth degree (V) or Dominant, as its name indicates, has a dominant function and usually appears quite a few times in the melody. The dominant degree creates a great tension in the song that is usually resolved on the tonic.
The sixth degree (VI) or Superdominant or Submediant is the root of the relative minor. It is called submediant because it is halfway between the subdominant and tonic.
Leading Tone or Subtonic
The seventh degree (VII) is special and I will explain you why.
If the seventh degree is at a distance of one semitone away from the tonic it is called Leading Tone. This degree creates a great tension and tends to resolve towards the tonic.
For example, in the C major scale, the VII degree, which is B, is called Leading Tone because it is one semitone away from the tonic, C.
However, there may be a situation in which the VII degree is at a distance of one tone away from the tonic, in which case it would be called Subtonic.
In this case the seventh degree does not resolve toward the tonic, but to reduce a semitone to go to degree VI.
If you read the article on the natural minor scale you will see that in this case the seventh degree is one tone away. For example, in the A natural minor scale the VII degree, which is G (G), is called subtonic because it is one tone away from the tonic, A.
Tonal and modal scale degrees
The 7 scale degrees seen in the previous section can be grouped into 2 main groups:
- Tonal scale degrees..
- Modal scale degrees.
Tonal Scale Degrees
The first, fourth and fifth degrees are called tonal degrees because they define the tonality, that is to say, they indicate which is the tonic and key.
The music intervals of these degrees do not vary with respect to the tonic. In other words, the fourth and fifth degree are always at the same tonal distance from the tonic.
If you don’t understand the above, look at the image below. In different scales, the first, fourth and fifth degrees do not change their position and are always at the same tonal distance.
Modal Scale Degrees
The third, sixth and seventh are called modal because they define the music scale modality. In other word, if the key is major or minor.
Unlike the tonal degrees, their intervals do vary. Thus, for major keys, the third, sixth and seventh are major scale degrees. And for minor keys the third, sixth and seventh are minor scale degrees.
And that concludes today’s lesson. I hope you have now a better idea of the degrees of a scale in music, their names and functions.
I love learning to play guitar, music theory and music in general. I never get tired of learning and trying to keep improving every day, step by step.
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