A scale in music theory is a sequence of notes played in ascending or descending order with a specific interval structure. There are many scales in music. Some are extremely common and fundamental, like the major scale or minor scale. Others are more obscure and only called upon in certain settings, like the whole tone scale or harmonic major scale.
What are scale degrees?
Every scale can be understood in terms of its scale degree names. Scale degrees are a numerical method of describing scales. The concept may sound complicated, but it is actually quite simple once you get the hang of it. Let’s dive in.
How do you find the scale degree?
The most basic way to understand scale degree names is to begin with one of the most fundamental scales in piano: the C major scale. The C major scale is often considered a blank slate to work with in piano music theory. It is neutral and easy to work with.
The C major scale is spelled: C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C. Check it out this basic piano scale notated here in treble clef:
In the C major scale, the major scale degrees are as follows:
- C is the first degree of the scale. The first degree is the tonic.
- D is the second degree of the scale. The second degree is the supertonic.
- E is the third degree of the scale. The third degree is the mediant.
- F is the fourth degree of the scale. The fourth degree is the subdominant.
- G is the fifth degree of the scale. The fifth degree is the dominant.
- A is the sixth degree of the scale. The sixth degree is the submediant.
- B is the seventh degree of the scale. The seventh degree is the leading tone.
When the major scale degrees are added to the notation in treble clef, it looks like this:
Now let’s dive a little deeper into each scale degree name.
The technical names of a scale degrees
The tonic is the first degree of the scale. Every scale has a tonic, whether it is the natural minor scale, the A major scale degrees, or the minor pentatonic scale degrees. The tonic note defines the name of the scale and also serves as the tonal center of gravity for the scale. In other words, it is the note that serves as the natural resolution point for all other notes in the scale, whether we are thinking in major scale degrees or minor scale degrees.
The supertonic is the second degree of the scale. Not every scale has a supertonic. For example, a scale like the minor pentatonic scale does not have a second degree. Therefore, there is no supertonic in the minor pentatonic scale. However, many scales included the supertonic, or second degree, so it is useful to understand.
The mediant is the third degree of the scale. Mediant derives from the Latin word for middle. Obviously, the third scale degree is not the middle of the scale. But, it is the middle of the triad built on the first degree. All major and minor chords have a mediant, or middle note.
The subdominant is the fourth degree of the scale. An easy way to remember this scale degree name is that it is one note below the dominant. Hence the name subdominant. However, the real meaning of subdominant lies a little deeper. As you discovered earlier, the fifth scale degree is called the dominant. The fourth scale degree is actually a perfect fifth below the tonic. Hence, the name subdominant.
The fifth scale degree is known as the dominant. The fifth scale degree is generally considered the second most important scale degree. Most classical music is based on the resolution of the dominant to the tonic. The resolution is also extremely common in pop and contemporary music genres.
The sixth scale degree is called the subdominant. The term submediant shares the same source as the subdominant. The sixth scale degree is a third (mediant) below the tonic, hence the name submediant, or lower mediant.
The leading tone
In the major scale, or any scale with a natural seventh scale degree like the melodic minor scale or harmonic minor scale, the seventh scale degree is known as the leading tone. The leading tone is a half-step lower than the tonic and has a natural gravity to resolve to the tonic.
In scales with a lowered seventh degree, like the natural minor or the blues scale, the seventh scale degree is called the subtonic. This is true for these minor scale degrees. The subtonic is a second below the tonic, like the supertonic is a second above the tonic.
How does solfege scale fit in?
The solfege scale is a syllabic system for note recognition. The solfege scale is a useful way to remember the scale degrees and because they are directly tied to the voice, they help to root the sound of each scale degree physically in your throat and ears.
The first scale degree is called do. Do is the tonic. The second scale degree is called re. Re is the supertonic. The third scale degree is called mi. Mi is the mediant. The fourth scale degree is called fa. Fa is the subdominant. The fifth scale degree is called sol. Sol is the dominant. The sixth scale degree is called la. La is the submediant. The seventh scale degree is called ti. Ti is the leading tone.
There are variations on the solfege scale to account for the flat and sharp notes of a scale, but we won’t cover them here as there are a few different approaches. They are useful when dealing with the minor scale degrees.
Here is the C major scale notated with solfege syllables instead of note names:
Why use scale degrees at all?
After all this music theory, you may be wondering why musicians use scale degrees at all. Good question!
The names of scale degrees allow musicians to break scales and arpeggios down into constituent parts and analyze how the different elements work together. By understanding the names of scale degrees, we can identify patterns and resolutions and then transfer them to other scales. The scale degrees of the C major scale are the same as the A major scale degrees. This consistency allows us to make conclusions about scales as a whole.
For example, you can describe a melody in the key of C major as 3 – 5 – 6 – 4 – 2 – 1 and then use those scale degree names to transfer the melody to another key. For example, using the A major scale degrees, the melody would now be C♯ – E – F♯ – D – B – A. This transferability expands our musicianship, allows us to understand the threads that unite melodies and chords on a deeper level, and allows us to communicate more precisely with other musicians.
Scale degrees may seem like complex and confusing nonsense. But, the concept is relatively simple once you understand how it works. Each tone of a scale has a number associated with it. This number is the scale degree name.
Learning how the names of scale degrees function allows us to understand the relationships between the different tones in a scale. The natural sequence of a scale becomes clear and we can use the information to transfer melodies and harmonies to different keys. If you are interested in learning more about major scale degrees and other music theory topics, Skoove offers many lessons on piano theory and technique, as well as a wide variety of songs both modern and classic to help build your knowledge and skills. Try it out today and see how quickly you progress!
Author of this blog post
Eddie Bond is a multi-instrumentalist performer, composer, and music instructor currently based in Seattle, Washington USA. He has performed extensively in the US, Canada, Argentina, and China, released over 40 albums, and has over a decade experience working with music students of all ages and ability levels.