1 Music Theory – 1H Degrees

In this lesson we will learn:

To create the the three note chord degrees

To create the four note chord degrees

To understand the importance of degrees

For this lesson we have to backtrack a little bit and remind us the concept of major scales and four note chords. Degrees are basically chords (stacked thirds) based on the notes of a scale. They are mostly used with the three and four note chords based on the notes of the major scale. Since the major scale has seven notes it also has seven degrees. Degrees are usually written with roman numerals where upper case letters stand for major chords (I =C) and lower case letters stand for minor chords (i = Cm). The numbers go in order (I-II-III etc.). Each three note chord is either a major or minor with the exception of the seventh degree which is a diminished chord (marked with an o). The same is true for the four note chords with the addition of the fifth degree being a dominant chord. All examples are in the key of C major.

Additional information available!

The major scale three and four note chord degrees are the most commonly used ones. Later, when we cover chord substitutions, we will see how we can substitute chords. These substitutions can come from various different theoretical sources one of which being the degrees of the minor scales. Yes, you can make degrees based on any scale. I have provided the four note degrees based on the harmonic and melodic minor under “Additional information (1H)” if you are interested.

Degrees (Triads)

Note: Both the triads and four note chords have been color-coded according to their qualities. Green is major, red is minor, blue is dominant and orange is diminished/half-diminised.

In pop/rock and contemporary music we are mostly using these three note chords. So more on that subject in “Chapter 1M – PopRock”. We are using these degrees to build progressions later on. Pop/rock progressions do vary somewhat with jazz progressions even though they are using the same chords. They are arranged in a different way and that is why they are covered separately in “Chapter 1M – Pop/Rock”.

Degrees (Four Note Chords)

Note: A little bit of information regarding using roman numerals with four note chords. To avoid confusion with major 7 and dominant 7 chords we can use the following guideline:


*This is a way to mark a major 7 chord

**As opposed to this marking for a dominant seven chord

***And this is a marking for a half-diminished / minor seven flat five chord

Understanding the importance of degrees

The most import thing to understand is that all seven degrees belong to the same key center. In the example the key center is C. That means that playing the C major scale will work over all of those degrees and chords since they all derive from the same scale. That can also be seen in that the lowest note of each chord form the C major scale.

Once you learn them the chord qualities of each degree (1st degree is a major chord 6th degree is a minor, chord 7th degree is a diminished chord etc.) you will begin to understand and expand your music knowledge to an incredible degree (pun intended). Essentially there are certain “rules” that you can use to glue these degrees together. In further lessons we can learn how we can borrow other degrees or chords from other scales to substitute the quality of a chord or even a whole chord altogether.

This subject shows clearly how chords and scales are two sides of the same coin. Once you get away from thinking of chords as isolated chords and start to “see” and anticipate how they are connected to a certain key center at any given time you musical mind will open up so that even complicated music starts to seem very logical. Thinking in degrees and “numbers” is very difficult in the beginning but will become easier with practice and you will start to “see” and “anticipate” what is happening “behind” the music with time. It will greatly help you if you are planning to get into composing as well.

Understanding (major scale) degrees is a quite important step to take before we go forward into 2-5-1s, chord pairs and progressions in the following lessons. 

(c) 2019 Sibil Yanev