Progression: Music Theory 101 – Scale Degrees and Intervals

- Posted May 15th, 2017 by

Hey dudes and dudettes,

Tuberz here with the beginning of a new series centered around the understanding and application of music theory. What is music theory you ask? Music theory is the underpinning of most western tonal music allowing us to analyse music we appreciate and enjoy. It is the understanding of relationships between notes, chords, rhythms, and sections of music. By understanding what’s going on with songs we enjoy, we can use these techniques and processes in our own music, much like what I wrote about in my article about music research. Funny how these things work right? Shall we get into it?

Let’s jam.

One day, you too can write spreadsheet music like a completely different form of sheet music

Pitch Sets

Pitch sets are sets of pitches. Probably. Makes sense right? If I have a C Major scale I have the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. This qualifies as a set of pitches, thus, a ‘pitch set’. That being said, all scales are pitch sets, but not all pitch sets are scales. This may seem strange at first, but I assure you that this will all make perfect sense someday. The main two scales that we use in music are the Major and Minor scale. Both of these scales have their ‘pitch sets’ arranged in a particular way regardless of where the start position is. For example, F major will arrange its notes the same way following the starting position of ‘F’, as C major will arrange its notes following the starting position of ‘C’. Depending on your starting position, and what tonality (major or minor) you want your pitch set to have, you will have a different number of ‘accidentals’ (Sharps [#] and flats [♭]) on different notes. (Ie. C major has no accidentals at all, though F major has a B♭, and B minor has an F# and a C# etc.) I’ll give you a few of these in this article for quick reference. It should also be noted that scales with sharps in them will sound ‘brighter’, and scales with flats in them will sound ‘darker’. Trust me it makes sense.

Pitch sets are something that gives a particular tonality or quality to a piece of music. For example, Bit Shifter’s ‘Reformat the Planet’ uses a definite Major scale, Chibi-tech’s ‘Love is Insecurable’ uses a Minor Scale, and a large majority of Danimal Cannon’s music uses an Octatonic Pitch set (more on that in another post). By learning to use these pitch sets, we can instill a mood similar to these musicians (and others!!!) in our own music! Other examples of pitch sets are things like Pentatonicism, Chromaticism (twelve tone music) and even things like 22 and 24 note pitch sets (microtonal tunings). Each scale has a defining characteristic, for instance, Major scales have a major third, and a major seventh. Minor scales have a minor third, minor sixth, and can have either a major or minor seventh (more on this in another blog post). Lydian mode is characterised by a #4, Mixolydian a ♭7. They all have something very notable about them. We’ll go into this next time we cover scales.

Scale Degrees

‘Scale degrees’ is a fancy term for ‘what note in my pitch set/scale am I using’. We use numbers for these and if we set up our C Major Scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, and B) we can correspond a number to each of the notes. (Ie. C = 1, D = 2, E = 3, F = 4, G = 5 etc.) This way, we can understand which notes we are using and how they flow into one another and interact with the chords underneath. We can begin to understand the ‘relationship’ between the notes, in both the chords and the melodic figure.

You see, the scale degrees are more important than figuring out the notes on their own. By figuring out that a melody might be D, E, F#, G, F#, A, G we have the order of notes, but with 1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 6 ,5 we have a context for it and are able to apply it more than just a D major figure. We could take this figure into B♭ major and have B♭, C, D, E♭, D, G, F. It’s all about the context and being able to apply this process to a variety of keys.


‘Reformat the Planet’ by Bitshifter. An iconic song in the Chiptune movement. Everybody knows the melody. The catchiness of the melody in the key of G major is unbelievable. Let’s break it down together so we can ascertain an understanding of how we could use this in our own music. So, the first part of the melody goes in this order D, D, B, C, B, G, E. Without a context this could be anything. This could seem like D Dorian at this point. It could seem like E minor. The great part of this melody is that you only become intimate with the scale degree one as scale degree one at the very end when we have the F# move into the G. The seventh scale degree moving into the first is always a good way to establish your key. Once we’ve established that we are in fact in G major, we can add scale degrees to our melody. 5, 5, 3, 4, 3, 1, 6. Isn’t it funny? Our 6 is supposed to be our lowest note, but it’s our highest scale degree. Numbers don’t discriminate, and it means that you can add variation later on (another blog post)

Even if you can’t read sheet music, you can totally read numbers (probably).
This alleviates a lot of stress surrounding music theory.

Generic Scales list:

C major: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
D major: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D
E major: E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#, E
F major: F, G, A, B♭, C, D, E, F
G major: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G
A major: A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A
B major: B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A#
B♭ major: B♭, C, D, E♭, F, G, A, B♭
E♭ major: E♭, F, G, A♭, B♭, C, D, E♭
A♭ major: A♭, B♭, C, D♭, E♭, F, G, A♭
D♭ major: D♭, E♭, F, G♭, A♭, B, C, D♭

C minor: C, D, E♭, F, G, A♭, B♭, C
D minor: D, E, F, G, A, B♭, C, D
E minor: E, F#, G, A, B, C, D, E
F minor: F, G, A♭, B♭, C, D, E♭, F
G minor: G, A, B♭, C, D, E, F, G
A minor: A, B, C, D, F, G, A
B minor: B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A, B

This is not a definitive list on every scale as there are plenty that I have missed (and I’ll go into some of these later (like C# Major)) but you can google all of these to much success. :)

You might also notice that some of the minor scales have the same notes as the major scales (ie. C major, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C and A minor, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A), this is a neat little thing that you can use to your advantage when modulating (more on that in another blog post (I’m just teasing you at this point)). It also makes remembering them way easier. :)

I hope that this has helped you all come to terms with some preliminary music theory. I’ll be back next month to give you a detailed look at chords, chord progressions, and general applications and characteristics of chords. Your homework is to find a song you love and analyse the melody with scale degree numbers. Stay tuned for more music theory, and if there’s a particular topic or question that you have for music theory definitely reach out and I’ll cover it.


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