10. Chord degrees

I think I get it…we cage some chords and after they escape, they get a degree. Is that it?

1. Topics of discussion

In this tutorial, we’re going to talk about the degrees of the notes of a major and minor scale and how that influences a chord’s role in a song. So, let’s have some fun.

2. Chord degrees

Each and every note of a diatonic scale (which is another name for major or minor scales) has a degree associated with it. That degree signifies both the note position in the scale, relative to other notes, and its importance.

For any diatonic scale, the note degrees are the following:

  • the first note (or root note if you will) degree is called the tonic
  • the second note degree is called the supertonic, because it is found just above the tonic note
  • the third note degree is called the median, because it is the middle note between the tonic and the dominant
  • the fourth note degree is called the subdominant, because it is found just below the dominant degree
  • the fifth note degree is called the dominant and is the second most important note of a scale
  • the sixth note is called the submediant and is located midway between the subdominant and the tonic (the one that ends the scale, an octave higher than the first note)
  • the seventh note is called the leading tone, because it tends to want to lead you to the tonic note
  • the eighth note is once again the tonic note

Chord degrees are of course based on the degree of their root note. If the root note of the chord is a tonic, then the chord itself is a tonic chord. If the root note is a dominant tone, then the chord is a dominant chord.

Some of you may ask if there is any relationship between these degrees and there is. The tonic degree is the one that helps you resolve any and all musical tension. The leading tone earns its name because whenever you’re playing a leading tone chord, the ear somewhat expects the next chord to be a tonic chord.

The supertonic chord has a natural tendency to lead you to a dominant chord. The mediant chord is sometimes used when you want to move from a tonic chord to a dominant chord, because it lies just between those two.

The submediant chord can be used to provide a sense of contrast, since it will always be of an opposite quality of that of the tonic chord (submediant chords are minor in a major key and major in a minor key).

The subdominant chord can be used as a passing chord that leads to the dominant chord while the dominant chord is used to create a sense of tension that is usually resolved with the help of the tonic chord. This is especially true for dominant seventh chords, but that’s another discussion for another day.

That about covers it for this tutorial. In the next one, we’re going to take everything we’ve learned so far and take a look at some chord progressions. See you soon.

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