Supertonic, mediant, submediant and leading-tone

Moving on in our study, we will learn some other nomenclatures that are widely used to describe tonal degrees. Within a scale, we can give the following nomenclature to degrees:

  • 1st degree: tonic
  • 2nd degree: supertonic
  • 3rd degree: mediant
  • 4th degree: subdominant
  • 5th degree: dominant
  • 6th degree: submediant
  • 7th degree: leading-tone

Where do these names come from? We already know the names tonic, subdominant and dominant, after all these are the names of the harmonic functions. See the explanation of the other names below:

  • Supertonic: the term “super” comes from Latin and means “above” or “over”. In practice, it means “what comes after the tonic”.
  • Mediant: is the degree that is halfway between the tonic and the dominant, hence the name “mediant” (medium, middle).
  • Subdominant: the term “sub” means “below” or “what comes before”. In practice, it is what comes before the dominant.
  • Submediant: is halfway between the subdominant and the upper tonic.
  • Leading-tone: It is the degree that brings the lead to resolve in the tonic.

Note: the seventh degree is called “leading-tone” when it is one semitone from the first degree (example: major scale). When the seventh degree is one tone away from the first degree (example: minor scale), that degree is called a subtonic.

What you need to memorize is this: in the same way that chords have harmonic functions, so do notes. So far, we have only talked about harmonic functions in the context of harmony, we have yet to speak in the context of melody.

The notes, therefore, that characterize the harmonic functions are as follows:

  • I degree: tonic function
  • IV degree: subdominant function
  • VII degree: dominant function

That is, taking the C major scale as an example, the C note would represent the tonic function, the F note would represent the subdominant function and the B note would represent the dominant function.

Perhaps you are thinking:  “Why is the dominant function not represented by the fifth degree?” In the case of chords, the fifth degree has a tritone. When we analyze melodically, the note that best characterizes the dominant function is the leading-tone, because it is one semitone away from the tonic (it leads chromatically to solve in the tonic). So, it is the note that best represents the feeling of a dominant function.

Go to: Tritone

Back to: Module 6