Degree (music)

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Scale degrees of C major[1] About this soundPlay scale degrees  and About this sounddegrees with triads 
Scale degree names, (see table below).[2] (C major scale) About this soundPlay ).

In music theory, scale degree refers to the position of a particular note on a scale[3] relative to the tonic, the first and main note of the scale from which each octave is assumed to begin. Degrees are useful for indicating the size of intervals and chords, and whether they are major or minor.

In the most general sense, the scale degree merely is the number given to each step of the scale, usually starting with I=tonic (or 1=tonic). Defining it like this implies that a tonic is specified. For instance the 7-tone diatonic scale may become the major scale once the proper degree has been chosen as tonic (e.g. the C-major scale C–D–E–F–G–A–B, in which C is the tonic). If the scale has no tonic, the starting degree must be chosen arbitrarily. In set theory, for instance, the 12 degrees of the chromatic scale usually are numbered starting from C=0, the twelve pitch classes being numbered from 0 to 11.

In a more specific sense, scale degrees are given names that indicate their particular function within the scale, (see table below). This definition implies a functional scale, as is the case in tonal music.

The expression scale step is sometimes used synonymously with scale degree, but it may alternatively refer to the distance between two successive and adjacent scale degrees (see Steps and skips). The terms "whole step" and "half step" are commonly used as interval names (though "whole scale step" or "half scale step" are not used). The number of scale degrees and the distance between them together define the scale they are in.

In Schenkerian analysis, "scale degree" (or "scale step") translates Schenker's German Stufe, denoting "a chord having gained structural significance" (see Schenkerian analysis: Harmony).

Major and minor scales[edit]

Scale degrees of C major

The degrees of the traditional major and minor scales may be identified several ways:

These names are derived from a scheme where the tonic note is the 'centre.' Supertonic and subtonic are, respectively, one step above and one step below the tonic; mediant and submediant are each a third above and below the tonic, and dominant and subdominant are a fifth above and below the tonic.
Subtonic is used when the interval between it and the tonic in the upper octave is a whole step; leading note when that interval is a half-step.
  • in English, by the "moveable Do" Solfege system, which allows a person to name each scale degree with a single syllable while singing.

Scale degree names[edit]

Degree Name (Diatonic Function) Corresponding mode (major key) Corresponding mode (minor key) Meaning Note (in C major) Note (in C minor)
1st Tonic Ionian Aeolian Tonal center, note of final resolution C C
2nd Supertonic Dorian Locrian One whole step above the tonic D D
3rd Mediant Phrygian Ionian Midway between tonic and dominant, (in minor key) root of relative major key E E
4th Subdominant Lydian Dorian Lower dominant, same interval below tonic as dominant is above tonic F F
5th Dominant Mixolydian Phrygian 2nd in importance to the tonic G G
6th Submediant Aeolian Lydian Lower mediant, midway between tonic and subdominant, (in major key) root of relative minor key A A
7th Leading tone (in Major scale) / Subtonic (in Natural Minor Scale) Locrian Mixolydian Melodically strong affinity for and leads to tonic/One half step below tonic in Major scale and whole step in Natural minor. B B
1st (8th) Tonic (octave) Ionian Aeolian Tonal center, note of final resolution C' C'

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jonas, Oswald (1982). Introduction to the Theory of Heinrich Schenker (1934: Das Wesen des musikalischen Kunstwerks: Eine Einführung in Die Lehre Heinrich Schenkers), p.22. Trans. John Rothgeb. ISBN 0-582-28227-6. Jonas shows the scale with triads and numbers the degrees in uppercase Roman numerals.
  2. ^ Benward & Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p.32-3. Seventh Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0. "Scale degree names: Each degree of the seven-tone diatonic scale has a name that relates to its function. The major scale and all three forms of the minor scale share these terms."
  3. ^ Kolb, Tom (2005). Music Theory for Guitarists, p.16. ISBN 0-634-06651-X.

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