In your music theory, you may have heard someone use the terms “tonic” or “mediant” before, but you didn’t know what they meant.
Tonic and mediant are two of the different scale degrees that we use in music.
As you might remember from our post about musical scales, which you can read HERE, a scale is a group of notes that are arranged by their pitch. The scale can either be ascending (going up) or descending (going down).
Another term for the notes in a scale is the “scale degrees.”
In this post, we’re going to be taking a closer look at the scale degree names and functions. Let’s get started by going over the degrees in a scale and how they work.
Labelling Scale Degrees
When we talk about the scale degrees, we’re talking about the notes that make up the music scale.
These notes could be labelled in a couple different ways.
The first (and easiest) way to label the notes in a scale is to use numbers. Starting with the first note, which is the 1st degree, then the second note is the 2nd degree, etc.
Here’s a picture of this number system in the C major scale:
As you can see, the 8th degree is a perfect octave above the 1st degree.
Technically speaking, the 8th degree is not a scale degree. It’s still considered the starting note. So if you’re counting up for more than one octave, you would start the counting over at 7.
Instead of 1-8, you’d count, “6, 7, 1, 2, 3…” like this:
This is because the 1st degree and the 8th degree are both the tonic note.
What’s the tonic note? That brings us to the second way to name scale degrees: the technical terms.
Every scale degree has its own technical name. Here’s a list of all the technical scale names in order:
- 1st degree: The tonic (also called the keynote)
- 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 (also called the leading tone).
On the 8th degree, the names start over. The 8th degree is the tonic, the 9th degree is the supertonic, and so on.
The Technical Scale Names
So we’ve gone over the technical names for the scale degrees. But why are these notes called things like “the supertonic” or “the submediant” instead of just using the number system?
In this section, we’re going to take a look at why each of these scale degrees got its name.
Even though these names can be confusing at first, there is a good reason behind each of these technical names. Let’s start by looking at the first note, the tonic.
#1- The Tonic
The tonic, also called the keynote, is the most important note in the scale.
It’s the first note in any of the diatonic scales. It tells us what key the music is in, and it’s where we get the name of each scale from.
For example, if the tonic is C, we know that the scale starts on C. We also know that the music is written in either C major or C minor (depending on the sharps and flats in the key signature). And we call the scale C major (or C minor) because the keynote is C.
The tonic gets its name from the tonic triad, because the tonic triad is based around the first note of the scale.
#2- The Supertonic
The second degree in a music scale is called the supertonic.
The word supertonic comes from the Latin word “super,” which means higher or above. So a supervisor is someone who works above you, and the supertonic is the note above the tonic.
Just remember that the supertonic is above the tonic. It’s like the tonic, but one degree higher.
Some people get confused and think that the supertonic is an octave above the tonic. But that is incorrect. The supertonic is directly above the tonic. It’s the 2nd degree, not the 8th degree.
#3- The Mediant
The third scale degree is named the mediant.
This note gets its name from the Latin word for “middle.” And at first glance, this sounds confusing. The third note isn’t in the middle of the scale.
However, this note is called the mediant because it’s in the middle of the triad chord.
To make a triad chord, we play the 1st, 3rd, and 5th degree notes at the same time.
In C major, this is C, E, and G. In F major, the triad chord is F, A, and C.
The mediant is right in the middle of the triad chord, in between the triad and the dominant (5th degree). So we call it the mediant, even though it’s not quite in the exact middle of the scale.
#4- The Subdominant
If you think of a submarine, or a subway, you might be able to figure out that “Sub” means underneath.
The fourth degree in the scale is called the subdominant. That’s because it’s one note below the dominant (the 5th degree).
Remembering the word “submarine” might help you remember that the subdominant is below the dominant. But that’s not the real reason behind this technical name.
Technically, the subdominant gets its name because it’s a perfect fifth away from the tonic. And the tonic is a perfect fifth away from the dominant.
This picture from HelloMusicTheory does a good job illustrating this:
For this reason, the 4th scale degree is literally the sub-dominant.
#5- The Dominant
The fifth scale degree is the second most important one, right behind the tonic.
We call this the dominant.
The dominant is very useful in the harmonies, and it resolves the triad chord (the tonic, mediant, and dominant, C E G).
The dominant note always wants to resolve the tonic, so we use it a lot in both the melody and harmony of a song. You’ll see this one around a lot.
#6- The Submediant
The sixth degree on the scale is called the submediant.
As you might be able to guess, this note gets its name from the same place that the subdominant does.
The submediant is one 3rd below the tonic. The mediant is one 3rd above the tonic.
And that’s pretty much all there is to it. The sixth degree is the submediant.
#7- The Leading Note
And last but not least, we have the seventh scale degree, which is called the leading note, or the leading tone.
This is called the leading note because it sounds like it’s leading us up to the tonic.
If you want to hear how this works, listen to this C major scale on the piano. In C major, the leading note is B.
Also, if you have access to an instrument, try playing a major scale all the way up to the leading note, but stop right before you reach the tonic. It sounds strange, doesn’t it? That’s because the leading note is trying to lead you back to the tonic.
Of course, after the leading note, the 8th scale degree is called the tonic. Then the 9th degree is the supertonic, the 10th degree is the mediant, and so on.
What is the Subtonic in Minor Scales?
So far, the notes and scale degrees we’ve covered are all in a major scale.
So what’s different if we take a look at the minor scale?
The minor scale has most of the same scale degrees, like the tonic, median, and dominant. But there is one difference.
In a natural minor scale, the 7th note is flattened. Instead of being one half step below the tonic, it’s now a whole step below the tonic.
It sounds different than the leading note in a major scale, so we call the flattened 7th a subtonic.
All of the other scale degree names stay the same.
Scale Degree Summary
When you learn about music theory, or play an instrument, you’ll hear a lot about scale degrees.
The ones you especially need to know are the tonic, median, and dominant.
These names are also used for different chords and chord patterns, so it’s good to be familiar with the technical terms.
I hope this article helps you learn more about the different scale degree names. If you have any questions about this, drop a comment and let me know, and I’ll be happy to assist you.
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