An introduction to music theory
An introduction to music theory

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

An introduction to music theory

6.3 Identifying the degrees of the scale

During the discussion of scales I needed to talk about not only accidentals but also degrees of the scale. I needed to be able to identify certain degrees of the scale, and therefore used a phrase such as ‘sixth or seventh note up the scale’. However, there are several ways of referring to the degrees of the scale:

  • the ordinal numbers already noted
  • cardinal numbers with carets above; and
  • names that reflect the importance of a particular note within a scale.

Here are the different systems displayed side by side, assuming that the scale is ascending:

Relationships of the names for the degrees of the scale

Ordinals Cardinals, with carets above Names
First degree Tonic, or key note
Second Supertonic
Third Mediant
Fourth Subdominant
Fifth Dominant
Sixth Submediant
Seventh Leading note

The names of the notes in the scale need explanation. In tonal music the most important note in the scale is the tonic or key note. In the scale of C major, for instance, the tonic, as you know, is C: the tonic signifies the key of the scale. The second most important note is the dominant, the fifth degree of the scale (see Example 58). Note that in this example the C major scale is notated from F, via C up to G so that the relationships between the names for the degrees of the scale are more clearly expressed.

Example 58

Next comes the subdominant, which has a ‘mirror’ position to that of the dominant. The dominant is five notes above the tonic; the subdominant is five notes below (sub, Latin for ‘under’). The mediant sits between the tonic and the dominant (medius, Latin for ‘middle’), and the submediant between the tonic and the (lower) subdominant. The supertonic lies immediately above the tonic (super, Latin for ‘above’, ‘over’), and, finally, the leading-note rises up to the tonic (see Example 59).

Example 59

Download this audio clip.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has over 40 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus