Understand the scale degrees that come from the major scales.
Each note in a scale is a scale degree. It is very useful to be able to refer to specific notes in a scale by special names to denote the properties that note of the scale has. Often it is not useful to name the actual note but instead its position in the scale.
The first way we can do this is just with the degree number. The first is the first note, second is the major second, etc… You will often hear it referred to this way because it is very intuitive. The numbers we use are sometimes arabic numerals (our regular counting numbers, 1, 2, 3, etc…), however we also use roman numerals for this as well, I, II, III, IV, V, etc… We often like to use roman numerals because they can be upper or lower case. By convention uppercase is major and lower case is minor.
Their positions in the scale also have special names. You will hear these names often. They are in order:
- Dominant (Superdominant)
- Leading Tone
Tonic / Root Note
The names come from a few places. Tonic comes from the Greek word tonos, which means “tension” or “stretching”. The tuning system was based around a reference note, hence why tonic is the reference note when we build scales. You will hear it called “home” or a “resting place” often as it is the spot that everything stems from and so will sound the most consonant.
Super is latin for “above” so this is literally the note above the tonic.
Mediant is latin for “middle”, in this case it is the middle between the tonic and dominant.
Sub is latin for below. The dominant is the distance of a P5. So the subdominant is the note a perfect 5th below the tonic. A direct translation would see it as the note below the dominant but this overlooks the symmetry of the scale being used.
Latin for “ruling” or “dominating”. This note will carry with it significant harmonic properties as it relates to the tonic because of its 2:3 ratio from the tonic. It is a perfect 5th above the tonic hence it can be seen as a “super” dominant. It occurs very early in the harmonic series as well.
The note in the middle of the upper tonic and the subdominant, or in other words the lower middle.
The note that “leads” to the tonic. Play a major scale and stop on the leading tone and you will hear its strong pull to finish the scale, meaning “go back to home” or “the tonic. In German it's “Leitton” (Leading Tone), in French it's “sensible” (sensitive, perceptible), and in Italian it's “sensibile” (sensitive). This leading tone is the most unstable scale degree of the scale, giving it strong melodic and harmonic properties.
In natural minor scales there is a whole step between the 7th and 8th scale degrees. In this case the 7th note loses its meaning as a leading tone since it no longer strongly pulls back to the tonic and so is called the subtonic, or in other words "the note below the tonic note".
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