This is Brian from SongADE, and today’s lesson is a Songwriting Block on scale degrees. This can help you better understand and communicate about music.

As always, I’ve provided you two ways to learn about this concept:

  • Video
  • Text

Feel free to use one or both!

Prerequisites

There are some prerequisites to this lesson:

  1. You have to know your basic major and minor scales and chords.
  2. You have to know the chords within those keys. In other words, if I’m in G major, I know that the chords G, A minor, D, E minor, and others all apply.

If you’re not clear on those, I would learn that stuff first. You can find that in the SongADE database or elsewhere on the internet. If you feel really confident in those areas, this lesson is for you.

Understanding Scale Degrees

Scale degrees are when we apply numbers to a scale rather than notes. We still know the notes, but we’re going to use the numbers to analyze music, understand it, and communicate about it.

Let’s take two examples: if I know my G Major scale, I might think of it like this: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. With scale degrees, it’s even easier. If I know the pattern, I can simply count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. The last note could be an 8, or it could be a 1. It kind of all depends on the context.

How Do Scale Degrees Apply To Songwriting?

How does this apply to songwriting? Well, it applies in a few ways.

1. Melody

When a singer does what they do and sings, they’re moving around the notes of a scale, or they’re using scale degrees. This really helps us analyze, understand, and communicate about the melody.

In the song Free Fallin’ by Tom Petty, he only uses scale degrees 1, 2, and 3. First of all, it’s amazing how effective simplicity can be in songwriting. Second, it’s really useful to know this example because, if you’re writing a song in a major key, you might consider a melody that utilizes these three notes, because you already know it sounds good.

2. Intervals

Another way scale degrees are useful is helping us understand intervals. Intervals are essentially just the distance between two notes. Often in music, we’ll encounter things like melodic jumps or falls, which is where a melody might go from an E all the way up to a C#, a note much higher, or it could go from an E down to a G#, much lower. These distances are intervals, and our scale degrees can help us name those intervals.

If you count from E, up to C#, you get six notes. Therefore, we call this interval a 6th.

Count down from E to G#. You should get six notes – another 6th.

3. Chord Progressions

The third way scale degrees are useful in songwriting is with chord progressions. So, like I said, a prerequisite to this lesson is you know the chords within a key. Let’s take G again. So we’ve got G, A, B minor, C, D, E minor. Those are basically the main chords of that key.

Now, if I were playing a song that started on a G chord and moved to a C chord, I could pretty easily determine what the chord progression is simply by counting off the scale degrees. G is the first scale degree, and C is the fourth, so this is a I-IV chord progression.

Let’s take another example like Knocking on Heaven’s Door. It’s in the key of G and it uses a I-V-ii as the first three chords (G-D-A minor). You can see that I’m already speaking more fluently using scale degrees.

One thing to note (which you’ve probably already noticed) about chord progressions and scale degrees is that chord progressions are written using Roman numerals, whereas if we’re analyzing a melody or an interval, we would probably just use the numbers.

Advanced Concept: Inversions

One thing you might encounter when you’re playing your own song or songs on the radio are inversions. Up until now, we’ve been playing very basic chords, but more advanced chords do exist, and they’re called inversions. We’ll learn about these in another lesson, but I’m mentioning them simply for your awareness.

Those aware of inversions may be wondering how we apply scale degrees to them. It’s a little bit different, and I will go over that in the inversions lesson, which is available now on the SongADE website and YouTube channel.

Homework

So, let’s talk about your homework.

  1. If you’re not fully comfortable with intervals and inversions, I recommend you review those songwriting block lessons.
  2. Now, if you’re feeling comfortable with those concepts already, it’s time to get your hands dirty and take what we learned in this lesson and apply it. Play some of your favorite songs, whether it’s your own stuff or stuff you hear on the radio, and write out the chord progressions. Focus on the verse and the chorus of the songs and take it in small bites. Don’t try to learn the entire verse; just take a short section, map out the chords, and work out what scale degrees associate with those chords. And then write down what the chord progression is in Roman numerals.

Final Thoughts

Thanks for joining me today. We learned about scale degrees, which is where you assign the notes of a scale numbers. This is applicable to songwriting in a number of ways, including understanding melody, intervals, and especially chord progressions.

Scale degrees are a great way to simplify music theory and analyze, understand, and communicate about music. I’ll be using scale degrees frequently in our SongADE lessons, so make sure you get comfortable with this concept.

Hope that was useful, thanks for joining me, and I’ll see you in the next one!