This article is the first of a two-part series on ear training brought to you by Scott Edwards of Ear Training HQ. Once you’re done with this one, click here to read the second installment.
When we first learn to play the saxophone we start by learning to make a sound. Then we learn where to put our fingers. After that usually comes B, A, G. I still remember being told to remember them using the word bag.
Once we have the first three notes down we obviously start adding all the others.
These labels that we use – A, B, C etc – are great for learning to play the saxophone (or any other instrument) and for reading. When you see a C, you know exactly which fingering to use to play the correct note.
But there’s a huge limitation to these labels: they’re absolute.
A C has a set pitch. And an A has a different set pitch.
But the way that a piece of music sounds doesn’t have all that much to do with the actual notes you are using. If you change the key of a piece of music it still sounds recognisable as the same piece of music even though the notes are all different.
The way a piece of music sounds is determined much more by the relationships between the notes. When you change the key of a piece of music the relationships stay the same, and that’s why it still sounds the same.
If we learn another way to label the notes in music – one that labels each note relative to the others – it opens up a whole new world of musical possibilities.
Scale degrees are exactly that: a way to label any note you hear relative to the other notes in a piece of music. I’ll tell you about how they’ll improve your playing in a moment, but first allow me to explain what they are.
What are scale degrees?
Scale degrees are labels we can apply to a note that tells us what position is has in a scale.
The first note in the scale is the first scale degree, the second note is the second scale degree, the third is the third scale degree and so on. The diagram below shows the C major scale with each note’s scale degree labelled below it.
We can apply scale degrees to the notes of any scale. Below you can see the C minor scale with scale degrees labeled below it.
What makes scale degrees so useful?
Applying numbers to the notes of scales may not appear to be all that useful at first. Until you realise that you can apply those same numbers to the notes of just about any piece of music.
Every note in every tonal piece of music (one that is written in a key) has a scale degree. So you can apply a scale degree to almost any note in music.
You can work out the scale degree of any note in a piece of music by working out the key, and then working out the corresponding scale degree of each note. A simple example: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in the key of C major.
So now you know that just about every note you ever hear has a scale degree, here’s the best part. Here are the two things that scale degrees will allow you to do (and in my opinion they’re both amazing).
1) Scale degrees will allow you to transpose music easily and quickly
When I was studying at university I had to be able to play Autumn Leaves in 12 keys for one of my assessments in my first year. It was a nightmare. I was trying to rote learn it in each key from scratch and I was failing miserably.
Fortunately, I learned about scale degrees halfway through the semester and changed my approach.
I learned the entire tune in scale degrees. For example, the opening phrase is in a minor key: 1 2 3 6 – 7 1 2 5.
Once I knew the melody in scale degrees, I had to learn the scale degrees of each minor scale.
This took me a few weeks (it’s not something you can learn overnight) but it made it possible for me to learn to play Autumn Leaves in 12 keys and it would have taken a whole lot longer if I didn’t have scale degrees to help me.
And once I’d learned the scale degree of each note in each scale, I could transpose anything quickly and easily. As long as I knew the scale degrees of what I was playing I could move it into another key.
But while transposing is a really useful skill, I don’t think it’s nearly and beneficial as the other skill that scale degrees will allow you to develop.
2) Scale degrees will allow you to play music by ear
Each scale degree has a unique sound. You can use ear training exercises to learn to recognise the sound of each scale degree which, with time, will allow you to recognize the scale degrees of the notes and chords you hear in music.
A lot of musicians try to train their ears and have limited success, and the most common reason is because they don’t take an approach that focuses on scale degrees. They use intervals instead, which don’t give you enough information to allow you to confidently recognise the notes you hear in music
If you start using scale degrees in your practice it will start laying the foundations for developing a fast and accurate sense of relative pitch so you can play confidently by ear.
How can you integrate scale degrees into your practice?
The simplest way to do it is to start analyzing the pieces of music that you practice and write the scale degree above or below each note. Even this simple addition will help to raise your awareness of scale degrees whenever you practice.
Once you’ve started thinking about scale degrees a little more you can try some of these exercises to keep going:
- Try using the scale degrees to play a piece in a different key: this will help you to learn more scales.
- Singing a piece while reading the scale degrees: this will help you to start really listening in to the sound of each individual scale degree.
- Ear training exercises: if you want to work quickly towards playing by ear, some dedicated ear training exercises will help a lot. As long as you choose exercises that focus on scale degrees (or solfa, which use syllables to label each scale degree) you’ll be heading in the right direction!
Good luck with it!
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