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#1284580 - 10/10/09 10:48 PM Scale Degrees
MrHazelton Offline
Full Member

Registered: 08/24/09
Posts: 243
Loc: CT
I was just reading some theory from Alfred's Basic Adult Theory Piano Book level three. In the first few pages the book names every degree of the scale. Tonic, Supertonic, Mediant, Subdominant, Dominant, Submediant, and Leading Tone. I guess I just don't understand where this is headed. What's the value of naming the intervals in the scale? Isn't the interval # enough? It just seems to add another level of complexity and I'm trying to determine the value. What am I missing? I imagine at some future point while studying theory this is important. Thanks for any feedback.

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#1284592 - 10/10/09 11:29 PM Re: Scale Degrees [Re: MrHazelton]
jazzwee Offline
7000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/25/07
Posts: 7146
Loc: So. California
I'm cutting and pasting this from the other active thread...

Originally Posted By: jazzwee
In the Jazz Study Group Thread, there is a lesson called "Scale Degrees"

Scale Degrees Lesson

I don't know if this is too advanced for you but it explains what I mean when I say, I IV V of a scale. If you know these degrees of a scale (translated to chords), you will be able to play 90% of pop tunes just by ear.

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#1284596 - 10/10/09 11:39 PM Re: Scale Degrees [Re: jazzwee]
Minniemay Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 06/07/09
Posts: 1702
Loc: CA
The names you cited are somewhat universal, meaning you can apply them to any key, unlike the letter names in a scale.

I can play the tonic and dominant chords in any key, but they will have different letter names depending on what key I'm in. Knowing their functions allows for easier transposition and helps guide musical shape.
B.A., Piano, Piano Pegagogy, Music Ed.
M.M., Piano

#1284601 - 10/10/09 11:50 PM Re: Scale Degrees [Re: Minniemay]
jazzwee Offline
7000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/25/07
Posts: 7146
Loc: So. California
Normally we refer to these scale degrees in Roman Numerals (capitalized being major and lower case being minor):

I (Tonic), ii, iii, IV (Subdominant), V (Dominant), vi, vii

The point of scale degrees being that most music is some combination of these and knowing them allows you to play most pop tunes by ear. Very useful during Christmas time for example...
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#1284602 - 10/10/09 11:50 PM Re: Scale Degrees [Re: MrHazelton]
keystring Offline
Yikes! 10000 Post Club Member

Registered: 12/11/07
Posts: 12089
Loc: Canada
n the first few pages the book names every degree of the scale. Tonic, Supertonic, Mediant, Subdominant, Dominant, Submediant, and Leading Tone. I guess I just don't understand where this is headed. What's the value of naming the intervals in the scale?

As I understand it, it is because in functional harmony these degrees also have a function and the names reflect that function. If your music is in the key of C, then it likes to start and end on C because that is like a "home tone". The first degree note is C, and since it's this home tone, it is also called the Tonic. The seventh degree note is B. It's one a half step away from the Tonic and "leads right into" the Tonic. If you play a scale and stop on B, you're itching to play C. The seventh degree note, which "leads in", is called the Leading Note. Your fifth degree note is very important, and it's called the Dominant. And so forth.

So the degree numbers just let you know it's 1st, 2nd, or 3rd, but the degree names reflect the function, like for example the leading note which leads into the tonic.

#1284610 - 10/11/09 12:08 AM Re: Scale Degrees [Re: MrHazelton]
Canonie Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/04/09
Posts: 1941
Loc: Australia
When you are just starting out it is probably enough to use names like "chord one, chord five" and abbreviate them and I, V. I'd agree that this is enough to remember when you are beginning to learn about chords.

The words Tonic, Supertonic, Mediant etc describe how each chord functions within a piece. For example the word Tonic (for chord I) describes that this is chord is built on the home Tone of the piece, the tone that the piece usually ends on, the tonal centre of the key (don't think of exceptions at this point).
Chord V is descibed as the dominant because this chord is so dominating in it's effect. Again best to think Beethoven rather than exceptions. You must have noticed that chord V really gets around. The other reason for calling it dominant is that you find in classical and romantic music (and lots of other music) that the harmony is moving towards the dominant, and once it gets there... well the job is done and the piece can flop gently (or plunge ecstatically) down to the tonic. This happens on a small scale (in just one bar) or across a whole movement.

Hmmm drifting off topic here. Can't help it wink
So know that these words exist, and gradually learn them if and when you need, certainly not necessary all at once. Hope this helps and good luck with your journey in the fun realms of How Music Works.

Composers manufacture a product that is universally deemed superfluous—at least until their music enters public consciousness, at which point people begin to say that they could not live without it.
Alex Ross.

#1284928 - 10/11/09 02:47 PM Re: Scale Degrees [Re: Canonie]
Gyro Offline
4000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/24/05
Posts: 4533
This is the kind of texbook knowledge
that is worthless unless you're
going into an academic career. You
can simply forget it.

There are thousands of 300 page
jazz piano textbooks you can buy,
but unless you like wading through
stuff like that, you can just
ignore them. What a 300 page jazz
theory book is essentially saying is:
"you can study this backwards and
forwards, but in the end it's all by

Sit down at the piano and just
dig in with both hands and all ten
fingers, and improvise stuff purely
by ear, with no concern for
any music theory. This is how you
train your ear. It all comes down
to playing by ear like this.

#1284933 - 10/11/09 02:56 PM Re: Scale Degrees [Re: Gyro]
Chris H. Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/14/05
Posts: 2919
Loc: UK.
Yeah, forget about it.......

Unless of course you enjoy learning!
Pianist and piano teacher.


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