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Mar 26

Music Theory Basics Part 4: Scale Degrees

This is the last installment of Music Theory Basics.  Why?  Well, beyond this you are getting into more intermediate and advanced concepts of music theory.  Even this entry is pushing the limits on what is “basic,” which is why I strongly recommend taking sometime to review the previous three entries before reading this one.

In Part 3 of Music Theory Basics, we discuss how our modern day musical scales developed from the musical modes used by the ancient Greeks.  For today’s purposes, here is a “textbook” definition.

  • Scale: a series of notes arranged, ascending or descending, by pitch.

Most scales are arranged in 8 notes (octave) and there are 7 different pitches within the modern musical scale of the Western world.  Each pitch serves a specific function and a name describing that function. Take a look and the scale degrees of a C major scale.Scale Degrees

  • Tonic: As the first scale degree, the tonic is the strongest tone within the scale and is the pitch that the melody and harmony center around.  Musical phrases usually end on the tonic.
  • Supertonic: The second scale degree which is on step above the tonic. This note is usually used as a passing tone to resolve to the tonic.
  • Mediant:  The third scale degree.  The mediant is halfway between the tonic and the dominant and is often used to harmonize either tone.
  • Subdominant: The fourth scale degree derives its name from being just below the fifth note (dominant) and being a fifth below the tonic.  It’s placement makes it a fairly strong note often leading to the dominant or tonic and sometimes it finishes a musical phrase on its own.
  • Dominant: The fifth note in the scale is the second strongest to the tonic.  In many cases, other notes will resolve to the dominant rather than the tonic and the end of a musical phrase.
  • Submediant: The sixth note of the scale is known as the submediant because it is halfway between the subdominant and tonic.  It’s function is similar to the mediant.
  • Leading Tone:  The last note on the way up to the tonic the leading tone creates the most dissonance and just begs to resolve to tonic.  A great way to torture musicians is to end a musical phrase with the leading tone.

By knowing the names and the roles each scale degree plays in the scale, we can better understand the relationship of melodies and harmonies which can aid in composition, improvisation, and analysis.  You no longer have to say, “I like that song, it sounds pretty.”  Instead, you can say, “It sounded like the composer was going to resolve to the subdominant, but instead he moved to the dominant and then resolved to the tonic.  That move created a little bit of tension, but not too much. I liked that.”  Impressive.

1 comment

  1. Jerry Rice

    Rachel, I enjoyed reading your scale descriptions. Very informative and very well done. Best Regards, Jerry

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