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Degrees indicate the functions of the notes of a key. Each degree corresponds to a number and a function name.


The degrees of a key correspond to the position of the note in the scale.

For example, in C major, the Ist degree is C, the IInd is D, the IIIrd is E, and so on, until the VIIth, which is B. When we return to C, we get back to the Ist degree.

FIGURE 1 - C Major degrees

Be careful, this is true only in C major. When changing the key (so the scale), we must start from the first note of the scale to count the corresponding degrees. Thus, in G major, the Ist degree is G, the IInd is A, the IIIrd is B, and so on, until the VIIth which is F. When we return to G, we get back to the Ist degree.

FIGURE 2 - Degrés en Sol Majeur

The degree is therefore relative to the key in which we are.

Note that degrees are written in Roman numerals, never in Arabic numerals, the latter being used for chords and figured bass.

Degrees and harmony

At each degree corresponds a harmony, that is to say a three-note chord built on the degree in question, by a stack of thirds.

FIGURE 3 - Harmonies on each degree in C Major

FIGURE 4 - Harmonies on each degree in G Major

The following table shows the harmonies of each degrees of a major key. Degrees I, IV, and V form perfect major chords while degrees II, III, and VI form minor perfect chords. This means that, whatever the major key considered, the harmony of the IVth degree will always be major, while that of the IInd degree will always be minor.

Be careful not to confuse the key mode (or scale) considered and the nature of the chords built on the degrees. In the previous examples, we are in major mode, that is to say we start from the major scale to build the chords. But the chords built are not all major! Some are major (I, IV, V), others are minor (II, III, IV), but the scale mode is Major.

Table - Harmonies according to the major mode degrees
DegreeNature of the resulting chord
IMajor perfect chord
IIminor perfect chord
IIIminor perfect chord
IVMajor perfect chord
VMajor perfect chord
VIminor perfect chord
(VII)Diminished chord

The resulting harmony of the VIIth degree is noted in parentheses because it is never used in classical music. It is considered as a variant of the harmony of the Vth degree (it is a dominant seventh chord without root note).

Degrees are functions

Why number the notes of a scale? In fact, the degrees indicate the functions of the notes.

To understand this concept, let's make a small comparison with the language. In English, words have a nature and a function. For example, in the sentence "This flower is beautiful", the word "flower" is a name: it is its nature. The word "flower" is the subject of the sentence: it is its function. Let's take another sentence: "I like this flower". In this second sentence, the word "flower" is still a name: its nature has not changed. On the other hand, its function is in this case Direct Object. We thus see that the same word (or nominal group) can have different functions, without changing its nature.

Last update on 2021/05/07

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