Degree (music)

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

In music theory, a scale degree is the name given to a particular note of a scale[3] to specify its position relative to the tonic (the main note of the scale). The tonic is considered to be the first degree of the scale, from which each octave is assumed to begin.

Any musical scale may be thought to have degrees. However, the notion of scale degree 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). As for the 12-tone chromatic scale, the selection of a first degree is possible in theory, but arbitrary and not meaningful, because typically all the notes of a chromatic scale have the same importance.

The expression scale step is sometimes used as a synonym of scale degree, but it may also refer, perhaps more properly and less ambiguously, to the distance, or interval, between two successive scale degrees (see Steps and skips). Indeed, 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 a scale.

Major and minor scales

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.
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


  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.
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