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The Scale Degree Names Explained

We all know what a scale is. They are a series of groups of notes that are arranged in either ascending or descending order. And every note that is in a scale is called a degree. The name of which is determined by how far it sits from the first pitch, or note.

An important part of understanding music theory is to have the Scale Degree Names Explained. The degrees apply to both minor and major scales.

We give them Numbers, but they also have Names

When we talk about the notes of a scale, to recognize them, we number them as degrees in the scale. The first note is called the 1st degree, the 2nd degree is the second note, and the third note is known as the 3rd degree, etc.

We could just number them as they are, but that could cause confusion. It could get awkward as other musical elements have numbers. Beats in the bar, for example. To ensure there is no confusion, we give them names. These are the names of scale degrees in music.

  • 1st degree, the note of ‘C,’ is known as the tonic.
  • 2nd degree, the note of ‘D’ is called the supertonic.
  • 3rd degree is ‘E,’ the mediant.
  • 4th degree, the note of ‘F’ is known as the subdominant.
  • 5th degree, the note of ‘G’ is the dominant.
  • 6th degree, the ‘A,’ is called the submediant.
  • 7th degree, the note of ‘B’ is known as the leading note.

Number and Names

Number and Names

Let’s take a minute to look at the numbers and the names described in a Key of C. Then, we can look at each in turn. The first degree or note we see is the Tonic, which in the Key of C is ‘C.’ This is followed by the second degree, ‘D,’ the Supertonic. The third is the ‘E’ the Mediant and the fourth, the ‘F’ note, the Subdominant.

The all-important fifth is known as the Dominant, which is a ‘G.’ The sixth or the Submediant is an ‘A’ and the seventh the Leading Note is a ‘B.’ The last shown is back to a ‘C’ an octave up. That is a new Tonic.

The Cycle Goes Around

This is a diatonic scale, seven notes, so theoretically, the leading note or seventh degree is the final degree. I have included the eighth, which is the tonic again. This, of course, is the octave. It is there to show that the same cycle of names and numbers reverts to ‘C’ and just starts again. Let’s take a look at each name individually.

1 – First degree, the Tonic

This is the first degree and is considered the most important note of the scale. In a diatonic scale, the first note. It is our indicator of what key we are in, which is why it is often called the “key note.”

It also gives its name to the chord structure we call the “Tonic Triad.” As that name suggests, it is what we call a chord that has three notes. They are composed of the Tonic, the first degree, the third, and the fifth.

2 – Second degree, the Supertonic

A bit of a cheesy name on the face of it. But in Latin, if you apply the word “super,” it means above, as in superior, which might refer to a better quality. Therefore, on that rather vague logic, the supertonic sits above the tonic. It’s just a way of remembering it if you want to use it.

3 – Third degree, the Mediant

A name that on the face is also confusing but for a different reason. The word “Mediant” in Latin means middle. Confusing because it isn’t in the middle of the scale at all. But the Mediant refers to the Triad chord. The third degree is the middle of the Triad formed by the 1st (Tonic), the 3rd (Mediant), and the 5th (Dominant) degrees that make up the chord.

4 – Fourth degree, the Subdominant

Another play on prefixes with this one. The “Sub” refers to being under or below, as in a submarine. This degree is underneath the Dominant. On that logic, you get Subdominant.

5 – Fifth Degree, the Dominant

The Tonic or first degree is the most important. But it could be argued that the 5th degree, or Dominant, would be considered the second. This is a musical degree fundamental in creating harmonies. It is a note that, when played, feels like it wants to return you to the Tonic 1st degree. And, of course, one of the member notes or degrees of the Triad.

6 – Sixth degree, the Submediant

Named on the same basis as the subdominant, it is a third or a mediant degree below the Tonic.

7 – Seventh degree, the Leading Tone

A complete change of deviation for the name. Rather than give it the Latin equivalent of leading, which is “Ducit,” it has just been called the Leading Tone. It is well-named. Try playing it in a major scale as it comes on the end of a run of notes. It feels like it wants to ‘lead’ you back to the Tonic or keynote.

Major or Minor?

Major or Minor

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the degree names for both major and minor scales are the same. That is, except for one. This is music theory, after all. There would need to be something different for it to work.

The Minor variation to the 7th degree – The Subtonic

The natural minor scale differs with the seventh degree. In this case, in the major key, the seventh degree is a semitone or a half step below the Leading Note. In the Minor scale, this is a Tone or a whole step below the Tonic. This flattened seventh is known as the Subtonic.

Unnecessary?

Now that we have reached the end of the Scale Degree names explained, it sounds like it is all a little too complicated. In fact, I have heard some say it is unnecessary, but this system has its benefits. And the one big benefit is that it prevents any confusion.

If someone talks about the dominant 5th, you know exactly what they are talking about. You will also know exactly where to find it. This applies to all the degrees and their names.

Useful Resources

This Key Degrees app will help you in the early days of learning degrees. If you play guitar, an invaluable book in your studies is The Guitar Chord Book. It shows the most common chords plus the chord notes and scale degrees. And if you play the piano or keyboard, take a look at Piano Scales Made Simple.

Interested in Learning More about Music Theory?

Our experts can help you improve your knowledge. Check out our handy guides on The Different Types Of Rests In MusicThe Dorian ModeWhat Is A Triplet In MusicWhat Is AABA Form In MusicHow To Transpose MusicWhat Is Theme And Variation In Music, and the Best Music Theory Apps for more useful information.

You may also want to upgrade your instrument. Have a look at our detailed review of the Best Jazz Guitars, the Best Acoustic Guitars Under $500, the Best Digital Piano With Weighted Keys, the Best 88-Key Keyboards, the Best Alto Saxophones, and the Best Tenor Saxophones you can buy in 2021.

The Scale Degree Names Explained – Final Thoughts

Whilst I can be a little flippant about Music Theory at times, it is important. In adopting the principles, and the exceptions to the rules, you will get a better understanding of how music works. That will definitely help you as a musician and composer.

Until next time, let your music play.

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About Jennifer Bell

Jennifer is a freelance writer from Montana. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and English, as well as an Associate of Applied Science in Computer Games and Simulation Design.

Her passions include guitar, bass, ukulele, and piano, as well as a range of classical instruments she has been playing since at school. She also enjoys reading fantasy and sci-fi novels, yoga, eating well, and spending time with her two cats, Rocky and Jasper.

Jennifer enjoys writing articles on all types of musical instruments and is always extending her understanding and appreciation of music. She also writes science fiction and fantasy short stories for various websites and hopes to get her first book published in the very near future.

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