As we covered in our beginner’s guide to musical scales post here, a scale is a group of notes arranged in ascending or descending order of pitch. Each note in a scale is called the degree of the scale depending on how many pitches away it is from the first note of the scale.
In this post, I’m going to look at the different names of these degrees and how they got their names.
What are the scale degree note names?
When referring to notes of a scale, we number them as the degrees of a scale. The first note is the 1st degree, the second is the 2nd degree and so on as shown below.
But, each scale degree has a special name too which are sometimes referred to as the technical names of the scale. These are:
- 1st degree – The tonic
- 2nd degree – The supertonic
- 3rd degree – The mediant
- 4th degree – The subdominant
- 5th degree – The dominant
- 6th degree – The submediant
- 7th degree – The leading note (or leading tone)
The 8th degree of the scale doesn’t have its own name as it’s actually just the tonic but an octave higher. This means that you just start again and carry on counting the degrees from the 1st again.
The technical names of a scale
Now we’ll take a look at each scale degree name in a bit more detail.
Even though it may seem a bit confusing at first there is a reason each one is called what it is. Let’s start off with the tonic.
1st – The tonic
The most important note in a scale is the 1st degree and it’s called the tonic. It’s also sometimes called the keynote as this note tells us what key we’re in.
The tonic is the first note of any diatonic scale. It’s where we get the name of each scale from. It’s also where the name ‘tonic triad’ comes from as it’s a triad chord based on the tonic.
5th – The dominant
We’re going to jump a few notes ahead now to the next most important note in a scale which is the 5th degree called the dominant.
The dominant always wants to resolve to the tonic and so a lot of harmony revolves around the dominant chord.
3rd – The mediant
Up next we have the 3rd degree of a scale which is called the mediant. This technical name comes from a Latin word which means ‘middle’.
You might wonder why it’s called the middle note as it’s not even close to being the middle of a scale but it get its name from when we forming a triad chord.
When building a triad chord we use three notes: the 1st, 3rd and 5th degrees of a scale. The 3rd (the mediant) is in the middle of the 1st and 5th notes which is why it’s called the mediant.
Just remember the mediant is in the middle of a triad (between the tonic – 1st degree, and the dominant – 5th degree).
4th – The subdominant
The opposite of super is the word sub. Sub means ‘below’ and it’s where we get words like submarine or subway from. It’s also where we get the name for the 4th degree of the scale which is the subdominant.
One way you can remember this note is that it’s one note below the dominant, and so is the subdominant. Although this is a handy way to remember, it’s not actually why it’s called the subdominant.
It get’s its name from being an interval of a 5th (dominant) below the tonic. It’s literally a sub-dominant.
It’s the same distance below the tonic as the dominant is above the tonic – a perfect 5th.
6th – The submediant
The 6th degree of the scale is called the submediant. You might be wondering why, and it’s because of the same reason that the subdominant gets its name.
The 6th degree of the scale is a 3rd (mediant) below the tonic. It’s in the middle of the tonic and the subdominant.
2nd – The supertonic
The 2nd degree of a scale is called the supertonic. It’s called the super tonic because the word super means ‘above’ in Latin and so you can think of it as being the note ‘above‘ the tonic.
It’s the same super from which we get the words supervisor from (someone who is above you) or superb (something that is above your expectations).
Just remember that the 2nd degree is above (super) the tonic, and so is called the supertonic .
7th – The leading note
Lastly, we have the 7th degree which is called the leading note or sometimes called the leading tone.
It’s called this because it usually leads into the note above (the tonic). If you try playing a major scale you’ll notice that the 7th note sounds like it wants to lead us back to the tonic.
What is the subtonic?
All of the scale degree names we’ve covered so far are from a major scale.
The natural minor scale is ever so slightly different though as the 7th degree of the scale is an interval of a tone (whole step) below the tonic instead of a semitone (half step) like the leading note.
For this reason a flattened 7th note is called the subtonic. All of the other technical names are the same.
The names of the degrees of the scale are used a lot in music theory and will come up a lot when talking about chords. It’s definitely worth learning them, especially if you’re taking a music theory exam. If you have any questions that weren’t covered here post a comment below.