• What Are Scale Degree or Technical Names?

    in Chords & Progressions,Piano,Theory

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    Scale degree names are the technical names for the notes of the scale.

    These technical names are directly related to the concept of tonality or key. Every given key – whether major or minor – has seven notes and each note is considered a degree and has its relationship and function [most importantly] in the key.

    Music scholars have technical names for each degree of the scale and our goal in this lesson is to explore these technical names.

    Review Of The Scale

    Scale according to Jermaine Griggs, can be defined as “…a regular succession of notes, played/heard in ascending or descending order [using a fixed formula.].”

    An ascent of notes from C to C:

    …in whole steps and half steps produces a scale. Conversely, it can also descend from C:

    …to C:

    There are so many scales and scale systems in the world. However, our focus in today’s lesson is on traditional scales generally and specifically on the natural major and minor scales.

    The Natural Major Scale

    The natural major scale can be formed by playing all the white notes on the keyboard:

    …from C to C:

    This scale can be transposed to other keys too. Consequently, there are twelve natural major scales on the keyboard [if we ignore enharmonically related scales.] Check out a few of them…

    The Eb major scale:

    The G major scale:

    The Bb major scale:

    …and the rest of them.

    The Natural Minor Scale

    The natural minor scale can be formed by playing all the white notes on the keyboard:

    …from A to A:

    It can also be transposed to other keys on the piano. Consequently, there are twelve natural minor scales on the piano [if we ignore enharmonically related scales.] Here are some of them…

    The D minor scale:

    The F minor scale:

    The G# minor scale:

    …and the rest of them.

    Scale Degrees And Their Technical Names

    The natural major and minor scales (aka – “traditional scales“) we covered in the last segment have seven notes each.

    In accordance with traditional principles, the first note of a scale is usually duplicated, and this puts the scale in octave position. Traditional scales are said to be heptatonic (i.e having seven tones.) However, owing to the duplication of the first note, they are considered to have eight degrees.

    The C major scale:

    …can be broke down into eight degrees thus:

    C is the first degree

    D is the second degree

    E is the third degree

    F is the fourth degree

    G is the fifth degree

    A is the sixth degree

    B is the seventh degree

    C is the eighth degree

    There are scholarly terms that every degree of the scale is associated with. Check them out below…

    The Tonic: The First Degree of the Scale

    The tonic is the first degree of the scale. It is the most important note in the key because the tonic itself is the key center. Every other degree of the scale has a level of relationship with the tonic.

    The letter name of the key or tonality is derived from the letter name of the tonic.

    The notable difference between the keys of B:

    …and Cb major:

    …is their tonic. Even though the major scale of both keys are played with the same finger keys on the piano, however, the difference in letter name between B and Cb accounts for the difference in tonality.

    That’s how important the tonic is – take it seriously!

    The Dominant: The Fifth Degree of the Scale

    One of the most important numbers in tonal music (that has to do with the use of major and minor keys) is five. The fifth degree of the scale is the next in importance after the tonic.

    The dominant forms an interval of a perfect fifth from the tonic, which is considered not only to be acoustically stable, but musically consonant.

    Harmonically, the dominant has a strong attraction towards the tonic and this explains why the dominant chord resolves to the tonic chord [most of the time.]

    In the key of C major:

    …the G dominant seventh chord:

    …which is the dominant chord, resolves to the C major triad:

    …the tonic triad.

    The Mediant: The Third Degree of the Scale

    This is the degree of the scale that lies in between the tonic and the dominant, hence the term mediant which literally means dividing in the middle. The mediant is midway between the tonic and dominant.

    In-between the tonic and dominant:

    …of the C major scale, lies the mediant:

    The technical name of the third degree is derived from its position between the tonic and the dominant.

    The Subdominant: The Fourth Degree of the Scale

    The prefix ‘sub’ means under, beneath, below, etc., while the termĀ  dominant refers to the fifth degree of the scale. If you put both terms together, you’ll have a new term subdominant which describes the scale degree that lies a fifth below the tonic.

    Let’s count five degrees below the tonic of the C major scale.

    C:

    …is the first.

    B:

    …is the second.

    A:

    …is the third.

    G:

    …is the fourth.

    F:

    …is the fifth.

    So, a fifth degree below the tonic (aka – “subdominant”) of the C major scale is F:

    …which is the fourth degree of the major scale.

    The fourth degree of the major scale derives its technical name from its position from the tonic, and just like the dominant-tonic attraction, there is also a strong attraction between the tonic and the subdominant.

    The Submediant: The Sixth Degree of the Scale

    When we came across the term mediant earlier, it was used to describe the scale degree that lies midway between the tonic and the dominant.

    The term submediant is the scale degree that lies midway between the tonic and the subdominant.

    In the key of C, here’s the tonic:

    …and the subdominant:

    …a fifth below the tonic. The submediant:

    …is the scale degree (A) that lies in-between the tonic and the subdominant. The submediant is the sixth degree of the scale.

    The Supertonic: The Second Degree of the Scale

    The second degree of the major scale is known as the supertonic. The use of the term super here implies that it lies a degree above the tonic versus the subtonic that lies a degree below the tonic.

    Harmonically, the supertonic has a relationship with the dominant. The supertonic [chord] usually lies a fifth above the dominant chord, and functions as a pre-dominant because most times in chord progressions, the supertonic chord is played before the dominant chord.

    The technical name of the second degree is derived from its position, which lies a degree above the tonic.

    Attention: The supertonic is always a whole step above the tonic, whether in the major or minor key. However, you must endeavor to stick to the proper spelling. The supertonic in the key Db is Eb and not D#.

    The Subtonic: The Seventh Degree of the Scale

    The seventh degree of the scale lies a degree below the tonic. The suffix ‘sub’ means underneath or below, and the term subtonic literally means below the tonic.

    When the subtonic of a key is a half step below the tonic, music scholars refer to it as the leading note.

    The subtonic of the major key is a half step below the tonic, while the subtonic in the minor key is a whole step below the tonic. Therefore, the subtonic of the major key is usually referred to as the leading note.

    Kindly check out the Implications of The Leading Note in Modality.

    The Octave: The Eight Degree of the Scale

    The eighth degree of the scale is the duplicate of the first degree of the scale (aka – “tonic”) and music scholars call this eighth degree the octave.

    Traditionally, scales are played from the first to the eighth tone. With that, a scale can start and end on the same pitch class.

    Suggested Reading: One Octave.

    Final Thoughts

    If you think these names are sounding very scholarly, you are not alone. I once found the memorization of these names challenging, but today, I consider it a privilege sharing the much I can on this.

    So, I believe that because of the scholarly benefits of being acquainted with these terms, that I have personally enjoyed, you’ll learn them.

    All the best!

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Hello, I'm Chuku Onyemachi (aka - "Dr. Pokey") - a musicologist, pianist, author, clinician and Nigerian. Inspired by my role model Jermaine Griggs, I started teaching musicians in my neighborhood in April 2005. Today, I'm privileged to work as the head of education, music consultant, and chief content creator with HearandPlay Music Group sharing my wealth of knowledge with hundreds of thousands of musicians across the world.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.




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