Major Scale Degrees on the Piano or Keyboard

If you are a budding piano player, you should familiarize yourself with the major scale. Each of the eight notes in a major scale is assigned a scale degree according to the order it appears in the scale:

  • 1st note: Tonic

  • 2nd note: Supertonic

  • 3rd note: Mediant

  • 4th note: Subdominant

  • 5th note: Dominant

  • 6th note: Submediant

  • 7th note: Leading tone (or leading note)

  • 8th note: Tonic

The 1st and 8th notes, the tonics, determine the name of the scale. (Scales that share the same starting notes are called parallel scales. For example, C major and C minor are parallel scales, because they both start on the same note: C.)

Relative to the tonic note, the rest of the notes in the scale are usually attached to the numbers 2 through 7 (because 1 and 8 are already taken by the tonic). Each of these numbers represents a scale degree, and their pattern of whole steps and half steps determines the key of the scale.

The 1st and the 8th notes have the same name here because they’re the exact same note — at the 8th note, the scale repeats itself. You won’t hear a musician talk about the 8th degree of a scale — instead, she’ll refer to the 1st note as the tonic.

So, for example, if you’re playing a piece of music in the key of C major, which sequentially has the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C in it, and someone asks you to play the 4th and 2nd notes in the scale, you play an F and a D. You do the same thing if that person asks you to play the subdominant and the supertonic.

Mastering scales is all about recognizing patterns. If you look at a piano keyboard, can you see where the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 of each scale go? For the major scales, remember, the pattern is WWHWWWH. If you’re given a scale and asked to play the sequence 5-3-2-1-6-4-5-8, do you know what notes you would play?

Eventually, you want to be able to answer yes to these questions for all 12 major scales. Here’s how:

  • Picture each scale in your head and where it’s located on the keyboard.

  • Know the letter name and number of each note in each scale.

  • Be able to play sequences of notes when given the key and number.

Only when you can do all three things for the 12 major scales can you stop practicing your scales.

Every single major scale you work with follows the WWHWWWH pattern, using different combinations of black and white keys on the piano, depending on the scale. To play each major scale on the piano, begin with the piano key that is the name of the scale.

For the A major scale, for example, you begin with the A. Then play the major scale pattern: WWHWWWH. The scale ends on the same note it began with, only an octave higher.

Practice playing up and down the C major scale with this exercise. You can use it to reinforce the scale pattern mentally, perfect your fingering, and improve your finger crossing. Start out at a slower tempo and increase the speed as you become familiar with the notes and the moves.

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