What are Scale Degree Names?

what-are-scale-degree-namesIn the realm of music theory, scale degrees are a fundamental concept that musicians and composers use to understand and communicate the structure of scales and melodies.

They serve as a roadmap, identifying the position of notes within a scale relative to the tonic, or the first note of the scale, which is the home base of any given key.

This comprehensive guide will explore the concept of scale degrees, their significance, and how they are used in music composition and analysis.

What are Scale Degrees?

A scale degree is essentially the numerical position of a note within a scale, with each degree having a unique name and function.

In a seven-note scale, such as the major or natural minor scale, there are seven scale degrees, each providing a different harmonic context and emotional color to the music.

Understanding these degrees is crucial for analyzing music, composing melodies, and improvising solos.

The Seven Scale Degree Note Names

Tonic (1st Degree):

The tonic, or the first degree of a scale, holds the foundational role within any musical key, serving as the home note from which the scale is named and established. It is the central pitch around which the rest of the scale and the piece’s harmonies are structured, providing a sense of resolution and rest.

In both major and minor keys, the tonic represents stability and is the ultimate goal towards which music gravitates, offering closure and completeness to musical phrases.

The tonic chord, built on this first scale degree, is considered the most important in establishing the key of a piece, making it a critical anchor point for both composers and performers.

Supertonic (2nd Degree):

The supertonic is the second degree of a scale, positioned directly above the tonic. It plays a significant role in musical structure, often used as a stepping stone in progressions leading towards more harmonically stable points, like the mediant or dominant.

The supertonic can introduce a sense of movement and anticipation, particularly when used in its chordal form. In many cases, the supertonic chord functions as a predominant harmony, setting up tensions that resolve to the dominant chord.

Its position right next to the tonic imbues it with a unique blend of familiarity and forward momentum, making it a versatile tool in composition and improvisation.

Mediant (3rd Degree):

The mediant, or the third scale degree, lies midway between the tonic and dominant, providing a crucial link that contributes to the overall tonality of a scale.

In major keys, the mediant imparts a sense of warmth and uplift, whereas, in minor keys, it can evoke a more introspective or melancholic mood. This scale degree helps to define the scale’s major or minor character and plays a key role in establishing the emotional color of a piece.

The chord built on the mediant often serves as a contrasting or complementary harmony within progressions, offering a rich palette for musical expression beyond the primary tonic and dominant chords.

Subdominant (4th Degree):

The subdominant is the fourth scale degree and holds a pivotal position within the scale, acting as a bridge between the tonic and dominant areas.

It introduces a sense of departure from the tonic, creating harmonic breadth and variety. The subdominant’s chord is fundamental in chord progressions, often used to precede the dominant chord, thereby enhancing the sense of movement and tension within a piece.

This scale degree adds depth to the harmonic structure, facilitating modulations and providing a counterbalance to the dominant, which helps to enrich the musical narrative and increase the expressive potential of a composition.

Dominant (5th Degree):

The dominant is the fifth degree of a scale and is second in importance only to the tonic. This scale degree serves as the primary source of tension and release within traditional Western music harmony, creating a compelling drive back to the tonic.

The dominant’s chord, especially when used in its seventh form, has a strong resolution tendency towards the tonic, making it crucial in establishing the key of a piece. Its powerful relationship with the tonic defines the overall tonality and is a key component in chord progressions, modulation to new keys, and creating a sense of movement and expectation in music.

The dominant’s inherent instability and its resolution to the tonic encapsulate the dynamic essence of musical drama and narrative.

Submediant (6th Degree):

The submediant is the sixth degree of a scale, positioned as the lower mediant relative to the tonic. This scale degree offers a tonal contrast to the tonic, providing a softer, more nuanced color within a key.

In major scales, the submediant introduces a touch of melancholy amidst brightness, while in minor scales, it can lend a lighter, almost hopeful quality. The chord built on the submediant plays a versatile role in harmony, capable of leading towards both the tonic for a resolution or to more dominant functions for tension.

Its position makes it ideal for exploring richer, more complex harmonies in both major and minor contexts, enriching the palette of musical expression.

Leading Tone (7th Degree in Major Scales) or Subtonic (7th Degree in Natural Minor Scales):

The leading tone, found in major scales, is the seventh degree, a half step below the tonic, creating a strong pull towards resolution that heightens musical tension and anticipation.

Its proximity to the tonic imbues the leading tone with a sense of urgency and desire for completion, playing a critical role in harmonic progressions and melodic contours. In contrast, the subtonic, present in natural minor scales, lies a whole step below the tonic, offering a softer, less resolved approach to the scale’s root note.

This distinction between the leading tone and the subtonic marks a significant difference in how major and minor scales are perceived and used, affecting the overall emotional impact and tension within music.

Sale Degrees in Minor Scales

In minor scales, particularly the natural minor scale, the scale degrees are named similarly to those in major scales but have different characteristics due to the altered intervals. Here are the scale degrees in minor scales, using A minor (the relative minor of C major, with no sharps or flats) as an example:

Tonic (1st Degree): The root note of the scale, providing the foundational pitch around which the scale is built. In A minor, the tonic is A.

Supertonic (2nd Degree): The second note in the scale, one step above the tonic. In A minor, the supertonic is B.

Mediant (3rd Degree): Positioned a third above the tonic, this degree helps define the minor quality of the scale. In A minor, the mediant is C.

Subdominant (4th Degree): The fourth note in the scale, it lies a perfect fourth above the tonic. In A minor, the subdominant is D.

Dominant (5th Degree): The fifth note, a perfect fifth above the tonic, vital for creating harmonic tension. In A minor, the dominant is E.

Submediant (6th Degree): The sixth note in the scale, providing a contrast to the tonic and contributing to the scale’s melancholic mood. In A minor, the submediant is F.

Subtonic (7th Degree in Natural Minor Scales) or Leading Tone (7th Degree in Harmonic Minor Scales): The seventh scale degree differs between natural and harmonic minor scales. In A natural minor, the subtonic is G, a whole step below the tonic. In A harmonic minor, the G is raised to G#, becoming a leading tone due to its half-step relationship to the tonic, creating a stronger pull towards resolution.

These scale degrees form the backbone of minor key music, dictating the harmonic and melodic structure and influencing the emotional character of compositions in minor keys.

Significance of Scale Degrees in Music Theory

Scale degrees are not just theoretical concepts; they have practical applications in composition, harmony, and improvisation.

By understanding the unique characteristics and tendencies of each degree, musicians can craft melodies that convey specific emotions, build chords that create desired harmonic progressions, and improvise with purpose and direction.

Scale Degrees in Harmony and Chord Progressions

Harmonically, scale degrees form the foundation of chords and chord progressions. The triads built on each scale degree have distinct functions—tonic, predominant, or dominant—that guide the harmonic movement of a piece.

For example, chords built on the tonic, subdominant, and dominant degrees (I, IV, V) form the backbone of countless songs and compositions, providing a sense of beginning, tension, and resolution.

Scale Degrees and Melodic Composition

In melody writing, the choice of scale degrees can significantly impact the mood and direction of the music. Composers often emphasize certain degrees to highlight the tonality of a piece or to create tension that resolves satisfyingly to the tonic.

The leading tone, in particular, is used to heighten anticipation before returning to the tonic, while the mediant can imbue a melody with a sense of warmth or melancholy, depending on the scale’s major or minor quality.

Modal Scale Degrees

Beyond the major and minor scales, the concept of scale degrees extends to modes, each possessing its unique set of degrees that influence the mode’s character.

For instance, the Dorian mode’s raised sixth degree differentiates it from the natural minor scale, giving it a distinct sound. Understanding these modal degrees allows for richer harmonic and melodic exploration.

The Role of Scale Degrees in Musical Analysis

Scale degrees are indispensable for analyzing music, offering a framework to dissect and understand the structure of melodies, harmonies, and their functions within a piece. Music theorists and students use scale degrees to identify chord progressions, analyze form, and study the interaction between melody and harmony.

Practical Tips for Learning Scale Degrees

For musicians looking to master scale degrees, practical exercises include singing scales while naming each degree, practicing scales on an instrument focusing on the function of each degree, and analyzing simple songs to identify the scale degrees used in their melodies and chords.

These activities reinforce the theoretical knowledge and enhance the practical application of scale degrees in music making.


Scale degrees are more than just numbers assigned to notes in a scale; they are the building blocks of musical language, offering insights into the structure and emotional essence of music.

Whether composing a new piece, improvising over chord changes, or analyzing the works of great composers, a deep understanding of scale degrees enriches the musical experience, providing clarity and direction in the vast world of music theory and practice.

As we continue to explore the depths of music, the knowledge of scale degrees remains a fundamental tool in our arsenal, guiding us through the complexities of harmony, melody, and the emotional landscapes they create.

For musicians and composers, mastering scale degrees opens up a world of creative possibilities, allowing for more informed and expressive musical decisions.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the significance of the tonic in musical compositions?

The tonic, or the first degree of a scale, serves as the foundational pitch from which a piece of music is built and to which it ultimately resolves, providing a sense of home and stability. It is crucial for establishing the key of a composition and acts as a reference point for all other harmonic and melodic elements within the piece.

How does the dominant scale degree influence a melody’s progression?

The dominant, being the fifth scale degree, plays a pivotal role in creating tension and anticipation, driving the progression towards a satisfying resolution back to the tonic. Its strong harmonic pull is essential for defining the tonality of a piece and guiding the listener through the musical narrative.

Can you explain the role of the mediant in determining a scale’s mood?

The mediant, or third scale degree, is key in defining the major or minor quality of a scale, significantly influencing the overall mood and emotional character of the music. Its position midway between the tonic and dominant gives it a unique ability to color the tonality, lending warmth to major scales and a sense of introspection to minor scales.

What function does the leading tone serve in musical compositions?

The leading tone, which is the seventh degree of a major scale, creates a compelling sense of urgency and expectation due to its half-step proximity to the tonic, urging the melody towards resolution. This scale degree is instrumental in enhancing the sense of drama and tension within a piece, often used to intensify the final cadence in a musical phrase.

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