The Function of Notes (Scale degree names) / Music Theory Lesson

Author: sleepfreaks

Preparation for Creating Story in Your Songs

After looking at 3 variations of a popular chord progression in our previous article, we made a little adjustment a variation that gave the progression a sense of completion.

From this point on, we will be looking at techniques to create more of a “story” through chord progressions.

In particular, over the course of a few articles we will look at “how to use” the chords we have learned up until this point (triads, 7th major diatonic chords).
We recommend practicing song analysis as well to polish up your skills along the way.

To avoid any confusion, lets go over some terms we have touched upon up until this point.

  • Note Names

This name represents the actual pitch of a note (determined by frequency).

  • Solfege

This encompasses the idea of the movable “do”. This means the root note of a scale is called “do”.

  • Scale Degree

By giving each note of the major scale a number (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (8)),
it allows us to easily use the knowledge of that scale to create other scales.

Ex: (Natural) Minor Scale
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 (8)

Because the C major scale is “C D E F G A B (C)”,

by lowering the pitch of the 3, 6, and 7 by a half-step,
it becomes the C (natural) minor scale (C D Eb F G Ab Bb (C)).


By knowing this, for example by simply remembering the scale degree of an arabic scale, “1 b2 3 4 5 b6 7”, we can easily create the C arabic scale.

C Db E F G Ab B (C)


Please be sure that you are familiar with this material.

The Purpose of each Scale Degree Name

Now lets dive in.

From here we will be looking at the function of notes (scale degree names).
Though it may seem complicated, this information is crucial so be sure to master it!
We will also be utilizing all of the knowledge we have learned up until this point.

First, take a look at the circle of fifths while picturing each major key and it’s scale.


Here, lets take a look at the note “C” in each key.

In the C major scale it will be the first note on the left.


It will be the fourth in the G major scale.


And fifth in the F major scale.


In fact, like its different placement in each key, the same note “C” holds a different role depending on the key it is found in.

To understand it’s role, understanding the functions of notes (scale degree names)
becomes necessary.

Using the C major scale as an example, lets take a look.


  • 「I」 Tonic = First degree

The first note of the scale, and in solfege (movable do) in a major key it is the note do.
In most music, there will be a sense of wanting to return to this note found in the progression.
It is considered the most stable note in a scale.

  • 「II」 Supertonic = Second degree

The word Super implies that is it the note above the Tonic.

  • 「III」 Mediant = Third degree

This name comes from this notes placement between the middle of the Tonic and Dominant.

  • 「IV」 Subdominant = Fourth degree

This note is a P5th below the Tonic, or a P4th above it.

  • 「V」 Dominant = Fifth degree

The note that is a P5th above the Tonic, or a P4th below it.
Similar to the Leading Tone, it has an important placement when in contrast with the Tonic.

  • 「VI」 Submediant = Sixth degree

This names comes from this notes placement between the Tonic and the Subdominant.

  • 「VII」 Leading Tone = Seventh degree

This note “leads” up a half-step to the tonic note.

Now we can see that the note C is the Tonic in the key C, the Dominant in the key F, and the Subdominant in the key G.

In our next article, we will be looking at these roles in the context of chords.
By learning how to link scale degrees to a chord it will be easy to discover their role in the context of a song.

Article Writer: Kazuma Itoh

講師 伊藤
After moving to the USA at 18 years of age with a scholarship from Berklee, he completed a 4 year study focused on song writing and arranging there.
Using this knowledge, he works across a variety of fields from pop music, film music, and more.