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Learn the Technical Names of Notes in Diatonic Scales and Chords

The notes and the chords built on those notes have technical names that are used quite frequently. These can seem quite confusing at first, so a brief explanation is in order.

The degrees of diatonic scales are known by names as well as numbers –


The 1st is called the Tonic – this is the root note of the scale.

The 2nd is the Supertonic as it is the note above the Tonic. In Latin super = above.

The 3rd is the Mediant. Again from the Latin – in the middle. Although this doesn’t mean it’s in the middle of the scale, but because it is the middle note between the Tonic and the Dominant!

The 4th is the Subdominant. Sub = below, but it isn’t called that because it is the note below the Dominant (even though it is!) but because it is the same distance below the Tonic as the Dominant is above the Tonic.

The 5th is referred to as the Dominant, it can be thought of as ‘dominating’ the music. It has a special relationship with the Tonic.

The 6th is the Submediant because it is the same distance below the Tonic as the Mediant is above the Tonic.

The 7th is another influential note and is called the Leading Note because it usually appears in a melody leading up to the Tonic.

In the Major Scale the chords built on the Tonic, Subdominant and Dominant are the primary triads of a scale. They are all Major Chords.

If you remember the Roman Numerals from last week's article the I, IV, and V are Major and therefore capital Roman Numerals. The Supertonic and Submediant are both minor chords, and finally the Leading Note is a diminished chord. In the Roman Numeral system from last week, these are ii, vi, and vii.

These terms are also used in Minor keys, but now the Tonic, Subdominant and Dominant are minor chords.

There you have it, once you understand the names they do make sense, they just don’t seem to when you first see them!!


-Duncan Richardson - MU Columnist


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