Wondering what all those scale degrees are for?
We use scale degrees to create melodies. They’re the building blocks of music!
Once you understand how they work, you can start using them in your own music compositions. It’s a great way to add more depth and interest to your music.
Read the complete article about scale degrees below and learn how to use them in your own music today!
What are Scale Degrees & Why use scale degrees at all?
As you are aware, as per music theory, all scales are defined by
- A tonic note. It is the center of its harmony and melody, and
- A set of intervals between the notes. They have a scale formula consisting of whole-step and half-step intervals that helps you to derive the scale’s notes from its tonic.
The most important characteristic of any scale is the particular pattern defined by its intervals. The effects created (restlessness, restfulness, relaxation, tension) by any melody are a function of these intervals and are called interval dynamics.
Any diatonic scale, like a major scale, has seven notes. Also, there are 12 such major scales with each chromatic note as their key. To discuss the interval dynamics in general, instead of individual scales like the D major scale, it is essential to assign a special name or number to each individual note of the scale, called the scale degree name.
We use both numbers and technical scale degree names to designate all the degrees of the scale. Assignment of scale degrees allows us to break the scale into its constituents and study its individual functioning, patterns, and collective performance. We can use these patterns or behaviors (like the resolution) on other scales.
Any particular tune or chord in one scale can be transferred to another with the same interval relationship using the concept of scale degrees.
How do you find the scale degree?
The table below shows all the D major scale notes, beginning and ending with the tonic note. The scale degree can also be defined as the position of any note relating to the tonic. It is a number given to each note of any scale. Sometimes the term “Scale Step” is used in place of scale degree and means the same.
Hence, if you number each note from the first note to the last note for the scale, you get the scale degree of every note. The last note, D, is designated as 1(8) and is one octave higher than the first note.
The diagram below shows all these notes on the treble clef and bass clef.
What are the Scale Degree Note Names?
The table below shows the scale degree note names and numbers for all the notes of the C major scale.
|Number of Note||Note Name||Scale Degree Number||Scale Degree Name|
|Seventh Note||B||7||Leading Tone|
The scale degrees can be represented by any one of the following methods.
- By the Arabic numerals like (1, 2, 3, ….). Sometimes you may find a caret symbol (^) over these numbers.
- By the ordinal numbers like first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh.
- By the Roman numerals like (I, II, III, IV …).
- By using the technical name given in the table above.
- By their name in the movable do solfege system.
Major and Minor scales
While we have discussed the scale degree concept mainly in reference to the major scale, it is equally applicable to the natural minor scale. The table below shows the applicable modes of the major and natural minor scales with their corresponding scale degrees and the notes in C major and minor scales. This will allow you a better appreciation of the concept.
|7||Subtonic in |
|Leading Tone in|
Harmonics & Overtones.
To better appreciate the discussion on the technical names of any scale degree and their meaning, it is better to recall the basics of the fundamental frequency of the tonic note and its harmonics (known as overtones).
You may know that when you play your guitar, in addition to the intended note, many of its overtones are played, which provides color and specific timbre to your instrument. As the table below shows, all the strong overtones of the tonic note corresponds to the pitches related to the scale degrees 1, 3, and 5. This is the main reason why these three notes played together on guitar or piano provide the beautiful harmonic sound of the major triad.
|Tones / Overtones||Multiples of |
|1st Overtone||2 x F||2:1||1|
|2nd Overtone||3 x F||3:2||5|
|3rd Overtone||4 x F||2:1||1|
|4th Overtone||5 x F||5:4||3|
|5th Overtone||6 x F||3:2||5|
|7th Overtone||8 x F||2:1||1|
|9th Overtone||10 x F||5:4||3|
Revisiting Interval Dynamics
You were introduced to the term interval dynamics earlier. Some of the important elements related to it are discussed in the following paragraphs.
The intervals that form a simple ratio with the tonic have the highest stability and the lowest dynamic tension. The tonic (Perfect Unison) and the octave have the simplest ratios and are the most stable intervals.
The perfect fifths, with a 3:2 ratio (the next simplest frequency after tonic and octave), has slight tension and, therefore, works as a counter to the tonic notes (tonic and octave).
A Major 3rd interval forms a ratio of 5:4 with the tonic, another simple frequency, which is the next most stable note.
Other intervals, like a minor second (for example, between the 7th note and the octave), have a frequency ratio of 16:15 and supply a lot of tension due to their lower stability.
The Technical Name of a Scale Degree
You are now ready to familiarise yourself with the basic concepts associated with each scale degree and their technical names. Usually, these names reflect the relation between the other scale degrees to the tonic and the dominant note.
1st Scale Degree – The Tonic
The first scale degree is the most important and defines the tonic center and the name of any scale. It is the natural resolution point for all the notes in the scale. It is called the tonic note because it is the center of the tonal music in that key.
5th Scale Degree – The Dominant
As highlighted above, it is the second most important scale degree. It has a slight but equal tendency to resolve to either the tonic or the octave note. It is the most dominant note after the tonic and is said to have a dominant function that is related to the instability created to resolve to the tonic. The chords built with this scale degree as the root are known as the dominant chords.
It is the scale degree one step to the right of the tonic note on the circle of fifths.
3rd Scale Degree – The Mediant
The scale degree three gets its name from a Latin word that means a middle note, as it is in the middle of the tonic and the dominant note. In a minor key, the mediant is also the tonic for the relative major key. Many composers use this scale degree for tonicization or modulation in the minor mode. It has a simple frequency ratio of 5:4 with the tonic, so it always tries to resolve to the nearest tonic note.
4th Scale Degree – The Subdominant
The next scale degree is just one note below the dominant and hence is known as subdominant. It has the same interval with the octave note as the dominant note has with the tonic. The triad built with the 4th degree is also called the subdominant chord and is denoted by IV in the major key.
It is a one-half step above and hence tries to resolve to the 3rd degree.
6th Scale Degree – The Submediant
Just like the mediant is halfway between the tonic and a dominant role, the submediant or the 6th Scale degree is halfway between the subdominant and the octave. Hence this name. In a major key, the 6th degree represents the tonic note of the relative minor key.
Scale degree 6 creates moderate tension and has an equal tendency to resolve either to the dominant note or the tonic note (octave).
2nd Scale Degree – The Supertonic
The scale degree 2 is one whole step above the tonic note in both major and minor keys. The triad built with this scale degree is also known as the supertonic triad. It is a minor chord in the major scale and a diminished chord in the natural minor scale. Scale degree 2 creates high tension and seeks to resolve to the tonic note.
7th Scale Degree – The leading note
The seventh degree in any major, melodic minor scale or harmonic minor scale is a one-half step lower than the tonic octave and is called the leading tone. It seeks to resolve upwards to the tonal center. The triad built with degree 7 as the root in the major scale has a diminished chord quality.
What is the subtonic?
In the natural minor scale, the interval between the 7th degree and the octave is a whole tone. Hence, the 7th scale degree in the case of the minor scale and blues scale (with an interval of the whole tone to an octave) is known as the subtonic.
This blog post looked at scale degrees, their note names, and why they are important in music. We also explored major and minor scales and their scale degrees. Finally, we looked at the technical names of scale degrees and how they can be used to create melodies. I hope you found this information helpful. Please let me know in the comments section below if you have any questions.