Welcome to Music Theory XI: Scale Degrees and Solfège! If you’ve been following along this whole time then you know that our previous two lessons covered major scales. Before we move onto minor scales it’s important that you understand the concepts of scale degrees. Because solfège ties in closely with scale degrees, we’ll discuss both concepts in this lesson. This should be a relatively short and simple lesson. Enjoy!
Scale degrees are simply numbers affixed to the notes of a scale. So, in the C major scale shown above, our first scale degree is C. The next note, which is a D, is the second scale degree of our scale. Every scale has seven scale degrees like shown in the image above. This concept becomes much more important further down the road, but luckily it’s easy enough to grasp that we won’t spend a lot of time on it.
As you can see from the F major scale above, we label the notes of an F major scale the exact same way we did with a C major scale. This method of enumerating the notes of a scale with roman numerals is the same across all scales. If you understand it now, you will understand how to apply it in all cases. We will learn about some slight modifications which must be made to the numerals themselves in future lessons.
Scale degree naming conventions
Each note in a scale also has a name as shown above. The first note of a scale is called both the first scale degree, and also the tonic.
- Scale Degree I: Tonic
- Scale Degree II: Supertonic
- Scale Degree III: Mediant
- Scale Degree IV: Subdominant
- Scale Degree V: Dominant
- Scale Degree VI: Submediant
- Scale Degree VII: Leading Tone
These names make more sense than they may first appear to if you realize that the mediant is halfway between the tonic and the dominant (the two most important notes in any scale), the subdominant is beneath the dominant (like a submarine is beneath the water), the leading tone leads to the tonic, the supertonic is above the tonic, and the dominant is, well… the dominant note of the scale not counting the tonic. We will expand upon these concepts slightly in our lessons on minor scales, so be sure that you have a good grasp of them now before they become a bit more complicated.
Now that you are familiar with the concept of scale degrees, we will move onto another common musical convention which is solfège. Made famous by the song in The Sound of Music shown below, solfège is actually a very old tradition and is commonly used amongst singers.
If you’ve read through our earlier lessons you probably saw this video already as well as a brief discussion of solfège and how it works. It’s important that you understand that solfège is closely related to the scale degrees we just discussed.
- Scale Degree I: Do
- Scale Degree II: Re
- Scale Degree III: Mi
- Scale Degree IV: Fa
- Scale Degree V: Sol
- Scale Degree VI: La
- Scale Degree VII: Ti
So, like the song says, we have do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, and back to do. If you are planning to study music at a college, university, or a conservatory, it’s important that you know whether the school you’re interested in uses a “fixed do” or a “moveable do” approach to solfege. In some systems C is always do (this is a fixed do system), meaning that the solfege follows the note names: do is always C, re is always, mi is always E, etc. Every other note in a given scale is based off of C being do in a fixed do system. In D major for instance, the solfege would be as follows:
Notice that with the fixed do system shown above we begin with re on the D and that instead of using Ti we use Si? These are conventions of the fixed do system. Moveable do on the other hand works with the do always falling on the first scale degree, re on the second scale degree, mi on the third, etc. There are many reasons to use either system for ear training. Which system is used varies by nation and language. Some have made the argument that fixed do is more conducive to developing perfect pitch, while moveable do teaches intervals better. There really is much more to solfege than I am able to cover in this short lesson, but you should be at least familiar with the concepts of moveable and fixed do. If you want to learn more about these unique systems for reading and understanding music, click here. From this lesson onward we will be using moveable do exclusively.
As you can see from the image above, D major as written using moveable do looks a lot like C major did. Hopefully you can appreciate just how wonderful a development moveable do was for music students everywhere. If you’re interested, there is a great bit of history surrounding one of the world’s great pedagogical tools. You can read more by clicking here.
That should hopefully give you at least a basic understanding of scale degrees and solfege. If you feel ready, you should take the quiz below before moving on to the next lesson just to be sure you’re understanding everything we’ve covered. Good luck!