As you hopefully know, 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, you will learn the different names of these degrees and also why they’re called by these names. Let’s get started.
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. The third is the 3rd degree, and so on as shown below.
But, each scale degree has a special name too, which are known as the technical names of the scale.
- 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 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
Next, we’re going to jump a few notes ahead to the next most important note in a scale, which is the 5th degree called the dominant.
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 that 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 gets its name from when we form a triad chord.
When building a triad chord, we use three notes:
- the 1st degree
- the 3rd degree
- the 5th degree
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 word 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 gets 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
Next, we move on to 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 supertonic 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 (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 (Leading Tone
Lastly, we have the 7th degree, which is called the leading note, or sometimes it’s called the leading tone. It’s called this because it 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.
Scale Degrees Of A Minor Scale
All of the scale degree names we’ve covered so far are from a major scale. Thankfully, all the notes in a minor scale use the same technical names as the major scale.
However, there is one exception, which is in the natural minor scale called the subtonic.
What Is The Subtonic?
The subtonic is the name we use for the 7th degree of the natural minor scale.
The natural minor scale is different from the major scale as the 7th degree of the scale is an interval of a whole step (also known as a tone) below the tonic instead of a half step (semitone) like the leading note in a major scale.
For this reason, a flattened 7th note is called the subtonic. All of the other technical names are the same.
That’s it for this lesson on the technical names of a scale. We hope it helped make a little bit more sense of not only what they are but also why they have those names.
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.
If you have any questions or if something wasn’t clear in this guide, please get in touch, and we’ll be happy to help.