Degrees and music intervals

What are degrees?

You have probably heard of “first degree”, “second degree”, etc. and maybe that sounded weird at first. However, as we will see, this terminology is simple and can be very useful. If we numbered the C major scale this way: C (1st degree), D (2nd degree), E (3rd degree), F (4th degree), G (5th degree), A (6th degree), B (7th degree), we could tell a friend, for example : “Play the 5th degree of the C major scale“, and he would know that you are referring to the G note.

So it ends up being very useful to talk about the notes of a song in terms of degrees. The logic is the same as that presented above, applied to each note of interest. For example, we can construct the degrees starting from the D note:

D (1st degree), E (2nd degree), F (3rd degree), G (4th degree), A (5th degree), B (6th degree), C (7th degree).

So, if someone asked for, say, the 3rd degree of D, you would know that it is the F note. Note that we are working within the C major scale in these examples. This needs to be specified (what scale we are working on).

Counting the notes

In a practical way, to know the note that refers to some degree, just count the notes starting from the note that was defined as 1st degree on your fingers. See some examples, still within the C major scale below (take this as an exercise):

  • Second degree of E: F
  • Fourth degree of G: C
  • Seventh degree of B: A

Note: The first degree is also called “tonic“.

These examples were used for teaching purposes only. In practice, you will find that degrees are widely used within the context of chords. You will learn how to locate yourself in a song using degrees in the article “How are chords of a key formed and what are they used for?“.  Before that, we’ll learn (in the topics “What are diminished, augmented and perfect intervals?” and “Complementary concepts about degrees“) other important details about degrees.

Go to: Augmented, Diminished and Perfect

Back to: Module 2