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victoria Williams Music Theory

Victoria Williams

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5. Degrees of the Scale

Grade Two Music Theory Lesson 5: Degrees of the Scale

Suitable for:  ABRSM Grade 2   Trinity Grade 2   GCSE   AP Music Theory Beginners 


What are the Degrees of the Scale in music theory?

Any note of any scale can be given a number as well as a name.

The first/last note of the scale is often called the "tonic" or "keynote".

In the key/scale of C major, C is the tonic. In the key/scale of A minor, A is the tonic.

It's also known as the "first degree of the scale", because it is the first note.


Degrees of the C Major Scale

Here's a scale of C major ascending, with all the degrees of the scale added:

Degrees of C major ascending - music theory

D is the 2nd degree of the scale, E is the third, and so on.

Notice that both Cs are called the "1st degree" even though the last one is higher than the first. It doesn't matter which register (high or low) the notes are in - the name is the same.


It's important to remember that we work out the degrees of the scale from the ascending (upwards) scale only. If we write out the descending scale, we will need to reverse the order of the numbers:

Degrees of C major descending - music theory


Degrees of Minor Melodic Scales

As we learnt in Lesson 4 - Minor Scales, minor melodic scales are different on the way down. So what happens to the degrees of the scale? Let's take a look.

We'll look more closely at one of our new scales, E minor melodic. First we'll write out the ascending scale, then add the degrees of the scale under each note:

Degrees of E minor melodic ascending - music theory

Look at the top end of the scale: C# is the 6th and D# is the 7th degree of the scale.


Now we'll write out the descending form of E melodic minor, also known as "E natural minor", and add in the numbers:

Degree of E minor melodic descending - music theory

In E minor melodic, there is no D#, only D natural, and no C#, only C natural.

This doesn't make any difference to the degree of the scale.

So, we can say that the 6th degree of the scale of E minor melodic is C natural or C sharp.


Working Out the Degree of the Scale

To work out what degree of the scale a note is on, all you need to do is count upwards from the first note (or "tonic" or "keynote") of the scale.

Here are two questions for you:

1) What degree of the scale of Bb major is this note?

What degree of the scale is this note? - grade two music theory

In Bb major, the tonic is Bb. The second note is C, and the third note is D. This note is D (notice the bass clef!), so it's the third degree of the scale of Bb major.


2) What note is the 5th degree of the scale of A minor?

In A minor, A is the first note. B=2, C=3, D=4 and E=5. So E is the 5th degree of the scale of A minor.



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