We have seen in the article Two scales to compose (almost) any melody that composers use scales to build melodies and chords. We will now see that each note of a scale has a particular function, its own characteristic. The role of a note depends on its position within the scale.
For example, in the C major Scale: C D E F G A B.
C = 1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, B=7.
It means that if we use a different key, every note will have a different purpose. That is why I don’t really like the traditional way to learn music that focuses on the name of the scales, notes, and chords instead of focusing on their function.
The hierarchy of notes
Notes in the scale also don’t have the same “importance”. Some play a more central role than the others. We will now look at each of them from the most important to the least important.
1st note: The Tonic / Rooth note
The first note of a scale (also called root note or tonic center) is the most important note, It even gives its name to the scale. (In a C major or minor scale, the root note is C).
The melody aims to come back often to this notes. It is the tonal center of the melody, the most stable note, feeling warm and straightforward. The tonic has the particularity to give a feeling of resolution to the melody, a lot of melodies in songs start and end on this note. In some song, the root note is continuously played from the beginning to the end. It continuously remembers what is the center of the melody.
In the audio file below the last note is the tonic, we can hear the conclusive feeling.
In some songs, the root note is continuously played from the beginning to the end. It continuously remembers what is the center of the melody.
In the song below, the “hmmm” sang during all the song is the root note. It is like a signature, a “hook” that gives an identity to the song.
5th note: The Dominant
The fifth note is the second most important note of the scale. Similarly to the Root note, this note is a warm and straightforward note. However, the Ist note gives a feeling of resolution when the Vth note gives a feeling of suspension. The melody sounds.
However, the Ist note gives a feeling of resolution when the Vth note gives a feeling of suspension. The melody sounds unresolved. A melody usually doesn’t end on this note. In the audio file below, the last note is the dominant. We can feel like the melody is not over. We are waiting for something else.
As for the tonic, it is also common to play continuously the 5th note during all the song. It gives the feeling that the music never stops, never rests.
4th note: The Subdominant
It is the third most important note of the scale. It is so called because there is the same distance “below” the tonic as the dominant is above the tonic.
Because of that, the sub dominant is similar to the dominant, the “suspensive” feeling is a bit softer than for the dominant.
3rd note: The Mediant
It is called the mediant because it is in the right middle between the 2 most important degrees, I and V.
Because this note creates an interval of third with I and V, this note sound romantic, voluptuous, sensual. The median is less stable, create some tension and makes the melody more colorful.
2nd and 6th notes: The Supertonic and Submediant
The VI is called Submediant because the mediant and submediant are at equal distance from the Tonic.
Those 2 notes are also less central and more colorful. The space between the 2nd and the Root Note is very narrow (only a whole step). Depending on the arrangement, the IInd would probably create some dissonances with the Root Note, in that case, the melody wouldn’t stay a long time on his note.
7 note: The Subtonic or Leading note
This note is a bit particular:
If the 7th note is a half step beyond the 1st (or 8th) note, it is called a Leading Note.
If this note is a whole step beyond the 1st (or 8th) note, the note is called Subtonic.
In both cases, the 7th note is unstable, suspensive. After a VII, we expect to hear a I, the melody wants to go back home to the Ist note. But if the VII and I are separated by only a half step, the notes are even closer and this feeling is stronger.
Those 2 audio files end with a VII -> I
Subtonic (whole step):
Leading note (half step):
It is called Leading Note because, after this note, the melody “wants” to be resolved with a Tonic. (the VII leads to the I).
Each note will give some information to your ear. In a nutshell, I, IV and V will give the key of the melody (is it C, G?) when II, III, VI and VII will give the color of the melody (is it major, minor?). Actually, if you play only the Ist, IVth and Vth note of the scale, it’s impossible to know if the melody is in major or minor.