Scales, chords and intervals are all related concepts in music theory.

As you learn them, you’ll often hear different words used to explain how they work.

One of the most common is the term scale degrees.

But what are scale degrees exactly? And how are they different from intervals?

In this article I’ll explain what scale degrees are and why they’re important to know.

Let’s get started.

What are scale degrees?

Scale degrees are the number values assigned to the steps of the musical scale.

Scale degrees are the number values assigned to the steps of the musical scale.

In typical seven note scales like the major scale and minor scale, the scale degrees are numbered from 1 to 7, beginning on the tonic and ending on the leading tone.

The scale degrees repeat at the octave so that each pitch class has the same number value in any register.

The degrees of the scale also correspond with musical intervals, so the two terms are often used in place of each other.

But intervals provide more information than scale degrees alone since their quality can be expressed as well. Interval qualities can be major, minor, perfect, diminished or augmented.

Scale degrees are most often used when a quick shorthand for the scale step is needed to provide context.

Here’s the C major scale written with the intervals and scale degrees shown:

Why do scale degrees matter?

Scale degrees help you situate notes within a chord or melody.

If you’re playing along to the music by following the key of a song, the key signature provides the frame of reference for which notes to use.

That means you won’t always have to use full interval names to identify notes or communicate with the other musicians.

The numbered scale degrees give enough information to work within a key.

But beyond that, knowing the degrees of the scale in all twelve keys will help you learn music theory concepts faster.

If you can easily say which note is the fifth of Eb minor you’ll have much easier time building chords and harmonic progressions in that key.

The same goes for chords within a progression.

By looking at each chord individually and treating it as though its tonic were the key, you can use scale degrees to identify it or change it to fit your needs.

For example, chord extensions are color tones you can add to a chord without changing its overall quality.

To use them you’ll need to know scale degrees—specifically, the 9, 11 and 13.

Overall, scale degrees are an important concept you need to know to build your music theory knowledge.

How to learn scale degrees

The degrees of the scale will help you most if you can call them to mind quickly.

There are a few shortcuts, but the best way to really learn them is to know them cold.

Luckily you don’t need to use boring memorization as your only tool. In fact, if you pay attention while playing, you’ll probably start to recognize them automatically.

Here are a few ways you can learn scale degrees fast.

Practice in all twelve keys

You’ll never feel comfortable in a key unless you spend some time practicing in it.

The more uncommon keys aren’t frequently used in popular genres, but you should still work on scales and chords for every single one.

If you focus on linking your theory knowledge with your instrument as you practice, the scale degrees should come naturally.

If you focus on linking your theory knowledge with your instrument as you practice, the scale degrees should come naturally.

Get used to the circle of fifths

The circle of fifths is one of the most recognizable patterns in music.

Musicians and composers use it to remember key signatures and navigate between related keys.

If you can move from left to right along the circle, you’ll at least know scale degree 5 in each key!

From there you can work forwards or backwards to identify the scale degrees.

Learn the chord tones

If you play a harmonic instrument like guitar or piano you probably spend plenty of time working with chords.

From basic triads to seventh chords and extensions, building your chords into voicings means you’ll have to rely on scale degrees.

As you play through progressions, try to focus on the chord tones of each chord. That means scale degrees 1-3-5-7 of each chord.

It’s yet another reference point to help you learn them.

360 degrees

Scale degrees may seem like a minor detail, but spending some time to recognize them will help your theory chops.

If you’ve made it through this article you’ll have a great start for understanding scale degrees.