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Master Guitar Scale Degrees

May 7, 2008
In this article we will define Scale Degrees, their names and explain them and their relevance in our theory studies. As you have learned in Nathan's excellent lesson on the Major Scale, each note of the scale is different. This trait is inherent to building a scale as no note in a scale may be repeated. In an effort to better understand the differences between the notes, we will explore Scale Degrees.

Will will use the Major Scale as our starting point. There are other scales and this information does hold true for most of them. Later, we will briefly touch on other scales and their related Scale Degrees.

The Major Scale Again, as you have already learned, the Major Scale consists of 7 separate tones. Here is the C Major Scale again as review:

C / D / E / F / G / A / B

Each one of these notes is given a designation through a Scale Degree Name. The names are in order and they stay in that order no matter what Major Scale is being used. Here are the Degree Names corresponding to their notes in the scale.

C - Tonic D - Supertonic E - Mediant F - Subdominant G - Dominant A - Submediant B - Leading Tone

Now, lets review each Scale Name and why it is called what it is. Important to recognize is the fact that the distances referred to here are in reference to the scales in their original mode. Once sub modes are considered, the distances from one note to the next note change. However, this is understood and when one refers to Degree Names, it is assumed that the original mode is being used. Also, in our previous lesson on Intervals, we learned that there are Major and minor 3rds and diminished and Perfect 5ths and that those intervals are comprised of various numbers of half steps. When dealing with 3rds, 5ths and 7ths in scales however, the counting method is used. Later, in this lesson, we will learn that Roman Numerals are also used to relate Scale Degrees. However, for our 3rd, 5th and 7th counting, Arabic numbers will suffice and are used as follows. Again, using the C Major Scale.

C - 1 D - 2 E - 3 F - 4 G - 5 A - 6 B - 7

So, when we speak of the third of C in the C Major Scale, we simply count C as 1, D as 2 and E as 3. Of course, the C - E interval is a Major 3rd (four half steps) however, this step is not required as numbering the Scale works perfectly.

Tonic The Tonic is the focal point of the scale. The scale derives its name from the Tonic, the above is a C Major Scale. Likewise, all of the other scale degrees are so named by their relationship to the Tonic. Any piece of music written using a certain scale will use the Tonic as its focal point.

Supertonic The Supertonic is one whole step above the Tonic. This holds true for the Major and minor Scales.

Mediant The Mediant is a 3rd above the Tonic. It is also midway between the Tonic and the Dominant. The mediant is the 3rd of our scale. 3rds or Tertian Harmony, are that upon which chords are based. It is important to recognize the Mediant or 3rd of any scale. You will see it again and again and your knowledge of theory grows.

Subdominant The Subdominant is located a 5th below the Tonic. This is the first time we have been asked to count backward from the Tonic. Let's review that for a moment. If we start at C and recite the scale backwards we have:

C / B / A / G / F / E / D

As we reviewed at the start of this lesson, a simple numbering of the scale is how 3rds, 5ths and 7ths are found. If we count backward from our Tonic, F is the 5th below the Tonic. While the Subdominant can also bo considered a 4th above the Tonic, it is important to recognize the 5th below element as that is where its name is derived. I will explain further in the Dominant definition.

Dominant The Dominant is located a 5th above the Tonic. Now is a good time to review the Subdominant. Sub meaning below gives us our reason why we counted the Subdominant as a 5th below the Tonic. The 5th or Dominant is so named because of its dominating role in harmony and melody. The Dominant is the 5 in the R+3+5, or Tertian Harmony, method of constructing chords.

Submediant Can you guess the relation and location of this degree just based on the name? Since the Mediant is a 3rd above the Tonic, the Submediant is a 3rd below the Tonic. The same counting method that we used in the Subdominant definition can be used here.

Leading Tone The Leading Tone is one half step below the Tonic. When playing a scale, one often ends on the octave above the Tonic. Since the Leading Tone is only one half step away from the Tonic, hearing the Leading Tone leaves the listener wanting to hear the Tonic as resolution to the scale. The Leading Tone leads the listener back to the Tonic.

Subtonic In minor scales the 7 degree is not a half step below but rather a whole step below the Tonic. This awkwardness of the minor scales is resolved with the different forms of the minor scales but that will be a different lesson. Just note that the 7 degree scale name in minor scales is Subtonic.

The Roman Numerals Scales Degrees are also described using Roman Numerals. While they do range from 1-7, the Roman Numerals serve another purpose. Nathan described in his lesson on the Major Scale the chords that are derived from that scale. When Roman numerals are used to describe Scale Degress, the also describe that chord related to that degree by appearing in upper or lower case. Here is an example:

C - I D - ii E - iii F - IV G - V A - vi B - vii

While it may appear a bit strange to see Roman Numerals in lower case, this is an accepted method of showing Scale Degrees and their related chords. An upper case indicates a Major chord, a lower case indicates a minor chord and lower case with this symbol indicates and diminished chord. The pattern of Major and minor chords is the same for any Major Scale. It will always be.
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