major scale / scale degrees

With knowledge of the chromatic scale ( click and go if you need to go there first ), and the idea of projecting the major scale scale from each of the 12 pitches, lets explore this popular group of pitches in more depth. This pass of the theory will simply apply numbers to each of the pitches of the major scale and explore common terms associated with each one. Can you count to eight? Sorry, just kidding, but in truth from a melodic perspective, that is really all the numbers we need to start to standardize the theory of the 12 keys into one numerical perspective. So, cool with the numbers? The following discussions will take two approaches. First a bit of the "theory" then the "art."

Lets enter into the numerical world of the equal temperament by linking a letter named pitch with a number. Example 1.

C D E F G A B C
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Here is the sound of the above chart. Example 1a.

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What we've simply done here is to give each of the pitches in the key of C major scale a numerical equivalent based on its relative position to the fundamental, which in the above illustration is C, our starting point identified as number one ( 1 ), the first scale degree of the C major scale. Cool? Very basic eh? That's the idea, keep it simple.

With the consistency of creating the 12 major scales and keys from one formula, does it stand to reason that one set of theory guidelines applies to all of the 12 keys? You bet it does! The numerical perspective is cool and easy and oh so important in reducing things down to basic elements and principles. Thinking along these lines can make all the difference for an improvising player in all of the American styles. As we unlock the theoretical mysteries of our wonderful tonal system, we'll simply apply these principles of organization to whatever key or tonal center we choose to work within. One set of rules, 12 major keys, very simple. So, back to the theory ...

C D E F G A B C
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Using the above chart again for example; C is the first degree of the C major scale, D is termed the second. The pitch E is the third scale degree of the C major scale, F is the fourth, G is the fifth, A is the sixth, B is the seventh and the eighth is again C, one octave above our starting point. 

With so much of the music in our world is simply based on the creation of aural tension and it's release, does each of the scale degrees of the major scale play varying roles in this creating of tension and its release? Yep. What I hope to provide for the reader are simple, familiar melodies that they can associate with the theory. So that now the "third scale degree" now also becomes the first pitch of the hook of "Jingle Bells" etc. I agree, some of the licks which follow are pretty basic, but so many self taught, non reading players play so far above the beginning level theory, that they have a hard time coming back down to the elementary levels to get a good understanding of the music they play. I'll never forget how strange I thought it was when one of my students told me that blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughn had recorded a cover of "Mary Had A Little Lamb." Knowin a bit of Stevie's sound and aggressive approach, he probably cooked it real good! Anyway, hopefully the familiarity of the following musical lines helps to quickly establish solid reference points between the theory and the music. Suggestions for additional melodies for study of popular standards for each of the scale degrees are also included.

So why is this understanding of scale degrees potentially so important? Depending on your artistic directions, thorough knowledge of each of the degrees of the major scale and how they relate to one another becomes one of the principle elements in developing one's ability to create musical tension and control it's release. When we listen to the improvising masters of all of the American styles, this is one of the many things that they all do especially well.

One. The first scale degree, "one", the tonic, fundamental or root, is like the sun in our solar system. It shines the brightest among the planetary scale degrees, creating the strongest sensation of peace, warmth and stability. Like our sun, the tonic is the center of our tonal gravity, the "pull" between musical elements of a resolving nature. Also, this first scale degree of the major scale is also the root of the tonic major triad, a key, structural pillar of stability and support for the harmony of American musical art. Example 2.

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Play through or listen to the classic's "Over the Rainbow" and "Christmas Song", both important American standards with a strong tonic to tonic motives. Is there a chord built on the first scale degree of the major scale? How about a church mode?

Two. The second scale degree, "two" or "supertonic", root of the pivot "Two" chord, so used as a passing tone towards one and with tremendous passionate effect up one octave as the ninth above the tonic. Here we approach the tonic in bar 10 with 2 and 7, in a sense "encapsulating" the tonic in bar 11. The major 9th, simply an octave up from the 2nd scale degree is sounded in bar 12. Example 3.

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So, why a major 9th? Cool with spelling chords and color tones? A.C. Jobim's classic Bossa Nova "The Girl From Impanema" hugs this 9th / 2nd degree. Is there a chord built on the 2nd scale degree of the major scale? How about a church mode?

Three: The third scale degree, "three", the "mediant", defines tonic quality as to being either in the major or minor environment. By being the second member of the tonic triad, very strong melodically. Know this line? Perhaps sound out the rest by ear and learn it on your instrument. Then through the 12 keys perhaps? Example 4.

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The third degree of the major scale is a very powerful player in the equal tempered world. "My Romance", "Cherokee", "White Christmas", are nice standards featuring the essence third scale degree. Is there a chord built on the 3rd scale degree of the major scale? How about a church mode?

Four: The fourth scale degree, Four, the "subdominant", plays the crucial role of providing a stable resting point away from but nearly identical to the tonic. Creates the "sus 4" sounds by suspending the 3rd degree harmonically. Melodic motion to Four creates a "yearning", and "epic" feeling. Harmonic motion to Four can be as "gospel" as it gets. Example 4.

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"America" uses the above 4 / 3 suspension to great effect. Is there a chord built on the 4th scale degree of the major scale? How about a church mode?

Fifth: The fifth scale degree, "the Five" chord, the "dominant", as the name implies, the "dominant" sets up the resolving motion to One. The "sounding of the fifths" goes way back in history. Third pitch of tonic triad. This is classic major key lyricism. Example 5.

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"C Jam Blues", "Joy Spring", "Satin Doll", are nice standards featuring the tonal quality of the fifth. Is there a chord built on the 5th scale degree of the major scale? How about a church mode?

Sixth: The sixth scale degree, "six", the "submediant", suspends the 5th, is generally a passing tone in the major environment and home of the relative minor. When phrases start or end on the sixth degree over tonic harmony they take on a softer, "far away" or lingering quality, echoing the major pentatonic color. Triads are "brightened" up by including their sixth. 

The following musical example I refer to as the "on the trail lick", the basic cliche melodic outline for lots of folk and country tunes. Totally sixth degree dependent to get the right feel, I wonder how many country tunes have used some variation of this lick. I always chuckle when I hear it and picture covered wagons heading west towards Californey. Example 6.

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This might be the only "country" lick in the whole project! "Shortnin Bread", "Skylark", "Moonlight in Vermont" are three cool standards whose melodies are very major sixth dependent. Especially "Skylark" which opens on the 6th, is a gorgeous, soaring line. Is there a chord built on the 6th scale degree of the major scale? How about a church mode?

Seventh: The seventh, the "leading tone", is "pulled" upwards by the tonal gravitational strength of the tonic. This leading tone is a very powerful directional persuader of our tonal world. Also an essential part of dominant chords, if this lick makes you a bit "tense" then I've succeeded in bringing out one quality of the 7th degrees tonal character. Example 7.

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One way to end the tension in the above line is to move up a half step to C. Which is exactly what the "leading tone" does so well, leads back to the tonic pitch. Learn its strength and use its power to create musical tension and control the "when and how" of its release. A very important ability for the improvising musical artist to develop. "Misty", "Samba De Orpheo", "Tenderly" are classic standard melodies that key in on the major seventh color in the major tonality. Is there a chord built on the 7th scale degree of the major scale? How about a church mode?

So after this initial foray into the scale degrees, perhaps a look at the interval studies with the major scale is a good challenge. Can you sing the basic intervals associated with the pitches of the major scale?

Where to next?
review new ideas
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The beginning is the most important part in any work. Plato