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The degrees of the scale


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Introduction

We have already refered to the degrees of the scale and the some special names given to certain notes. Now we will introduce the special names given to every degree of the scale.

Diatonic scales

We have already closely looked at the major scale and the various minor scales. Collectively, these scales are known as diatonic scales.

The word "diatonic" comes from an ancient Greek word and literally means "progressing through tones". In modern usage, when we talk about "diatonic music", for example, we are refering to music constructed from major and minor scales.

The opposite of the word "diatonic" is the word chromatic, and we will soon meet the chromatic scale in The chromatic scale.

Seven degrees

All diatonic scales (i.e., all major and minor scales) have seven degrees. A degree is one of the notes of the scale - the first note, the second note, and so on - in other words, the first note of a scale (such as C in C major) is the first degree, the second note is the second degree, and so on.

We can therefore number the notes of any diatonic scale, as for example here in D major:

Numbering the degrees of the D major scaleNumbering the degrees of the D major scale

The technical names

Each degree of the scale also has a special, formal name, and of these names you have already met the tonic (1st degree) and the dominant (5th degree), and perhaps also the leading note (7th degree).

All seven of the technical names of the degrees are important to learn and remember, and you will very often use these in music theory, both to describe the diatonic scales themselves but also for further topics on chords and harmony.

The technical names of each degree are listed below:

DegreeName
1st degreetonic
2nd degreesupertonic
3rd degreemediant
4th degreesubdominant
5th degreedominant
6th degreesubmediant
7th degreeleading note (or "leading tone")

Major and minor

Remember that both major and minor scales are diatonic scales, and both have 7 degrees, all named as above. So, for example, the tonic of G minor is G (the 1st degree), and the dominant of A flat major is E flat (the 5th degree).

The notes might change - with an accidental - depending on which form of the minor you are using. So, the leading note of G minor is either F natural or F sharp depending on whether you are using the natural, melodic, or harmonic minor scale.

That might seem confusing, but in practice, it isn't: you will normally just need to know the degree of the scale for a given note. So, if you are given the note F sharp and the key G minor, then the answer is the leading note, and the form of the scale is not mentioned.

These names and their corresponding degree can be confusing and tricky to remember, so we will briefly look at the explanation and reason for each.

Essentially, the most important to remember are the tonic (1st degree) and dominant (5th degree), because the rest should easily slot into place once you understand what the technical names mean.

Tonic

The tonic is the 1st degree, and the note which gives the scale or key its name - the key "tone".

The tonic of D majorThe tonic of D major

Supertonic

"Super" is the Latin word for "above", and the supertonic is, naturally, the next note above the tonic: the 2nd degree.

The supertonic of D majorThe supertonic of D major

Dominant

The 5th degree of the scale has a special relationship with the 1st degree of the scale, and apart from the tonic itself, is the most important note - hence, it is the dominant note.

It is an important note in forming a perfect cadence (see Cadences, and the fifth is the interval which dictates the cycle of keys - a key's closest relation is a fifth away - and the fifth is the most prominent tone other than the fundamental in the harmonic series of overtones.

The dominant of D majorThe dominant of D major

The harmonic series

The harmonic series is an interesting subject, and well worth discovering if you are not already familiar with it! Here is a video of Leonard Bernstein explaining it very clearly:

Subdominant

The "sub" in subdominant is Latin for "below", and the 4th degree is so called because it forms the interval of a 5th below the tonic, just as the dominant is a fifth above the tonic.

For example, in D major, the dominant is A (a fifth above D), and the subdominant is G (a fifth below D).

The subdominant of D majorThe subdominant of D major

Mediant

The word mediant derives from the Latin for "middle", and the mediant note - the 3rd degree - is in the middle of the two most important degrees, the tonic and the dominant.

The mediant of D majorThe mediant of D major

Submediant

Just as with the subdominant, the "sub" in submediant (the 6th degree) means "below", and is the same distance below the tonic as the mediant is above the tonic. The mediant is a 3rd above the tonic, and the submediant is a 3rd below.

In the same way that the mediant is in the "middle" of the tonic and the dominant, so the submediant is in the "middle" of the tonic and the subdominant.

The submediant of D majorThe submediant of D major

Leading note

The leading note has a more precisely descriptive name than the other degrees: it simply "leads on" to the beginning of the next octave at the end of a scale.

This is quite audible - if you play a scale from the 1st to 7th degree, then stop, you will feel that the 7th degree very strongly wants to lead on to the next octave!

The leading note is also a very influential note from a functional point of view - because it so strongly leads to the tonic, composers can easily use the leading note of a new key to introduce a key change to a piece of music.

The leading note of D majorThe leading note of D major

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