Degree (music)

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For scale-step in Schenkerian analysis, see scale-step.
Scale degree names[1] (C major scale) About this sound Play ).
Scale degree roman numerals.[2] About this sound Play 

In music theory, a 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. The term is useful for indicating the size of intervals and chords, and whether they are major or minor.

Scale degrees can be applied to any musical scale; however, the concept is most commonly applied to scales in which a tonic is specified by definition, such as the 7-tone diatonic scales (e.g. the C-major scale C–D–E–F–G–A–B, in which C is the tonic). It is possible to assign a scale degree to the 12-tone chromatic scale, but this is of no effect as all notes have the same importance in that scale, as is its intended purpose.

The expression scale step is sometimes used synonymously with scale degree, but it may alternatively refer to the distance between between two successive scale degrees (see Steps and skips). The terms whole step and half step are commonly used as interval names. The number of scale degrees and the distance between them together define the scale they are in.

Major and minor scales[edit]

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 'center'. 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.
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. ^ 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."
  2. ^ 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. Shown all uppercase.
  3. ^ Kolb, Tom (2005). Music Theory for Guitarists, p.16. ISBN 0-634-06651-X.