Scale degrees number each note in a scale based on its position in that scale. Take a look at the diagram below to see the C major scale with scale degrees shown below it:

Scale degrees are an unbelievably useful tool for ear training. Here are a few of their key features:

1. The scale degree of each note depends on the tonic

The tonic is always the first scale degree, and we then work each scale degree out from there. Below you can see the F major scale. F (the tonic) is now scale degree one. G is the second scale degree, A is the third etc.

Whenever you want to work out the scale degrees of a piece of music first find the tonic, label it with a 1 and go from there.

2. We can also apply scale degrees to other scales

We can also apply scale degrees to the minor scale or any of the modes of the major scale (dorian, mixolydian etc). The process is the same as it is for the major scale. Find the tonic first and then label each note from there.

You can label each scale degree with the exact same numbers. Just make sure you know which scale you’re using. For example if it’s the natural minor scale (the minor scale that most music in minor keys is based on) you simply need to remember that the third, sixth and seventh scale degrees are flattened in comparison to the major scale.

3. We can use scale degrees to recognise chords as well

Scale degrees allow us to recognise much more than just individual notes. We can also use them to identify any chords we hear.

The bottom note of a chord is called the root note. For example, the root note of a C major chord is C, the root note of a G minor chord is G.

With relative pitch you’ll learn to recognise chords and chord progressions by identifying the root note of any chord and then recognising its scale degree. This is a simple 2 step process that will become automatic as your relative pitch improves.

4. Scale degrees work for chromatically altered notes as well

A lot of music uses the notes from a single scale. For example, a piece of music in the key of C major might only use the notes of C major.

There’s also plenty of music out there that isn’t limited to the notes of a single scale. We see a lot of chromatically altered notes (notes from outside the key/scale) used for all sorts of different reasons.

Scale degrees work perfectly for these notes as well. Each chromatically altered scale degree has its own sound just like each note from the scale does so you can learn to recognise these as well. If a note has the raised 4th scale degree (F# in the key of C for example) you can label it as a #4 or raised 4th scale degree.

These four features combine to make scale degrees very powerful. We can recognise any note or chord in any tonal piece of music. It doesn’t matter whether it’s major, minor or modal. That sounds pretty useful now doesn’t it!

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    2 replies to "Scale Degrees: The most important tool for developing relative pitch"

    • Monte

      I respectfully disagree with your last point. Use of scale degrees with chromatic altered notes implies that the note that had been either raised or lowered is the same as the unaltered tone. For example in the key of C if the F is raised to F#, it would still be 4 therefore F and F# are the same note which they are definitively not. In solfege, there are different syllables for the half tones–fa becomes fe when raised indicating 2 different notes. For this reason I believe solfege works better than numbers.

      • Scott Edwards

        Hi Monte,

        Thanks for your comment and for pulling me up on explaining myself poorly. You’re 100% correct that when you raise or lower a note it changes and my meaning was that you can give a chromatically altered scale degree to identify. Just as fa becomes fe in solfege, 4 becomes #4 when using scale degrees to achieve the same result. I’ll make that clearer in the lesson this week!

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