Given the ideas that:

  1. Diatonic Scales have the scale degree names tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant, & leading. These correspond to the 1st through the 7th degree respectively.
  2. The major pentatonic scale is made up of degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, & 6 of the Major (diatonic) scale.

Does this mean that the degrees of the pentatonic scale are made up of:

1. tonic
2. supertonic
3. mediant
5. dominant
6. submediant

without a "4. subdominant" and "7. leading" degree?

Or is everything shifted such as to not skip scale degrees and the pentatonic scale is actually made up of:

1. tonic
2. supertonic
3. mediant
4. subdominant
5. dominant

without a "6. submediant" and "7. leading" degree?

I could see it either way and or a 3rd alternative entirely.

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    Those terms are specific to diatonic scales and do not apply to pentatonics. – Aaron Jan 18 at 16:15
  • Thanks for your comment - this was my hunch frankly - are there a set of terms similar (perhaps some shared) used for pentatonics instead? Disregarding the names, are the scale degrees in terms of the ordinals the same? – Tresdon Jan 18 at 17:04
  • That's my experience -- they're just referred to numerically according to the corresponding diatonic scale. – Aaron Jan 18 at 18:28

Your description is more or less the "gapped" or "skipped" view of the pentatonic scale which is a major scale with the 4th and 7th degrees skipped or removed.

The reading I have done basically says the pentatonic scale is not derived from a major scale, or diatonic scale. The pentatonic scale is its own entity: a five tone scale with nothing skipped or missing. I think it's believed the pentatonic scale existed long before diatonic scales.

I have only seen the degree names like tonic, supertonic, mediant, etc. shown in the context of diatonic scales. And there are certain harmonic associations with those degrees. For example, the leading tones is associated with dominant harmony, the mediant with the tonic chord.

Obviously you can't complete all the basic diatonic triads with only a pentatonic scale and that seems to be where the mingling of scale degree names in a pentatonic context gets a bit questionable. You could speak of the "dominant" in a pentatonic scale, and most people will understand you mean the tone a perfect fifth above the starting tone (tonic,) but yet you can't really have a proper "dominant" chord, because there is no leading tone, no tone a half step below the starting tone of the pentatonic scale.

I'm not sure if there is an absolute right or wrong about this, but I think you can say the scale degree names are strongly associated with diatonic scales and chords.

To the extent it would be consider a problem to use those names in a pentatonic context, you could simply refer to "1st scale degree", "second scale degree", etc. or perhaps "the major third of the scale", or "perfect fifth of the scale", etc.

  • 4
    "pentatonic scale is not derived from a major scale, or diatonic scale". Very important point. We tend to refer to pentatonics in terms of corresponding major/minor scales, but they are technically unrelated, having entirely independent derivations. – Aaron Jan 18 at 18:34
  • 1
    They don't have entirely independent derivations. They are both derived from the overtone series. The major scale just uses more overtones, and a couple of church-imposed quirks. It is inaccurate to say that the major pentatonic scale was derived from the major scale, but you could plausibly argue that the major scale was derived from the pentatonic. – Max Jan 20 at 6:29
  • The harmonic series hardly does more than show octaves and perfect fifths are significant. If you take the first 5 pitch classes, they don't make the pentatonic scale of concern in this question. The harmonic series only explains the totally obvious: octaves and perfect fifths are stable. – Michael Curtis Jan 20 at 14:35

Keeping the same names for the same notes makes sense. The tonic is still going to be the tonic, whatever. That then paves the way for the supertonic to still be the supertonic - one above the tonic.

The mediant is halfway between tonic and dominant, so retains its name. No sub-dominant (sub = less important), but dominant is still just that- dominant. Any chord built on it will be a dominant chord.

Leaving the 6th note, sub-mediant - again, 'less important than' the mediant. Possibly still so - it doesn't designate major or minor, like the mediant does.

So, I reckon the names ought to stay the same, whether from the full diatonic majr scale, or the major pentatonic scale. And of course, the leading note has no place - one reason why pents are easier to use than the full scale set of notes.

So, summing up, milud, I prefer to let sleeping dogs lie.

  • Thank you for your answer - I agree that it makes sense that the tonic is still the tonic and thus we could build the remainder of the degrees from that. In that case it does seem like then we wouldn't be skipping as far as the ordinals of the scale go and we would get degrees 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5. – Tresdon Jan 18 at 17:08
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    Sub does not meant less important than, it means below in latin - so in musical context, subdominant is "the note (below) whose dominant is the current tonic", ditto for submediant (the note below, whose mediant is the current tonic) ^^ – moonwave99 Jan 19 at 12:17
  • @moonwave99 - still not convinced. 'Subtonic' is one tone under the tonic - thus not even diatonic. And that definition of submediant - I don't understand what you explain. – Tim Jan 19 at 12:21
  • @Tim "It is so called because it is the same distance below the tonic as the dominant is above the tonic – in other words, the tonic is the dominant of the subdominant." see wiki – moonwave99 Jan 19 at 12:39
  • @moonwave99 - so your explanation is that dominant is 4 steps under the tonic, (or 5 steps over), and the subdominant is the opposite? That makes a bit of sense. And mediant is 3 steps above tonic, so the one 3 steps below gets called submediant. Could have just as logically been called superdominant - one step above dominant. – Tim Jan 19 at 12:51

I don't think it would be completely correct to consider those names in a strictly pentatonic concept, as those names only belong to the 7 diatonic steps scales.

Considering this, anyway, it's common to use that nomenclature even in pentatonic context, mostly because pentatonic scales are introduced as "reductions" of diatonic scales; this is also the reason for which those degrees will keep their names, even if some notes are "skipped", no matter if the "dominant" is no more the "fifth note".

Those names have very specific roles: the dominant is not only the "fifth degree", but also "the tone that exists at a perfect fifth above the tonic". This is clear also for the 7th degree, which is called subtonic or leading tone, whether it's a whole tone or semitone to the next tonic (or minor/major seventh from the root of the scale).

In fact, in the minor pentatonic mode, the second degree is still considered the mediant; in Italian it's also called "Caratteristica" (as in "trait"), since it is what defines the mode, which makes it even more important: it has to be a third from the tonic, no matter if it's the second or the third note in the scale.

So, degree names are not referred to the "steps" (intended as in "notes played") from the tonic, but to their role and interval within the diatonic scale.

  • 1
    "it's common to use that nomenclature even in pentatonic context": can you document that? I've never heard those terms used outside of a diatonic context. – Aaron Jan 18 at 16:15
  • 'Subtonic' is a new one on me! Sub doesn't mean under, it means less important. Otherwise, where does submediant get its name? – Tim Jan 18 at 16:26
  • @Aaron it's not something that I can "document" right now, but I can say that when talking with other musicians is common to call them using the diatonic degrees for convenience, even when in a pentatonic context (I'm obviously talking about the "standard" major and minor pentatonics only). – musicamante Jan 18 at 16:36
  • @Tim No, the "sub-" prefix doesn't mean less important: it comes from the Latin "sub" (under). For instance, if you "subscribe" to something, it doesn't make the action less important ;-) it comes from Latin too: subscribere, "write under", as in "signing at the bottom of a document". The submediant ("under middle") is considered the mediant between the tonic and the (lower) subdominant, and its naming is also important as it is closely related to the semitone difference of the mediant, implying major and minor modes, since in minor natural mode it's also lowered as the mediant is. – musicamante Jan 18 at 16:46
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    @Tim subtonic is a standard theory term. It's the tone one whole step below the tonic. – Michael Curtis Jan 18 at 18:14

The assumption behind the question is that the pentatonic scale can serve as a key or tonal center. I think that's probably a problematic assumption. For example, treating the pentatonic scale as a tonal center means that a song in C Maj pentatonic should never move to F Maj (since the the IV chord is not a step in the major pentatonic scale). To me, the assertion that a song based on C Maj pentatonic should never move to F Maj seems very inaccurate because (in my experience) F Maj is extremely likely to appear in a song that is based on C Maj pentatonic. So treating a pentatonic scale as a tonal center fails to provide an accurate description of what we mean by a "pentatonic-based song." However, the genres I'm familiar with are limited to Western music primarily.

So if the pentatonic scale fails to describe the song's harmonic structure, then the pentatonic scale isn't actually serving as the tonal center. Hence, it would be inappropriate to apply the terms 'tonic,' 'mediant,' etc. to the pentatonic scale, since (in the loosest interpretation) these terms are designations for the scale steps that the key/tonal center is based on. (In the strictest interpretation, the designations 'tonic,' 'mediant,' etc. apply to diatonic scales only.)

This may raise a question: what does a "pentatonic song" mean, if we were to use that term? What does it mean that a song is "based on a pentatonic scale?" Usually, this means the melody is based on the pentatonic scale. Attempting to apply harmonic designations like tonic, mediant, etc. might be shots in the dark. If songs truly based on pentatonic harmony don't actually exists, then we have no way of knowing what harmonic role each pentatonic scale step actually plays.

  • 1
    Pentatonic to me means 5 notes - as in the melody uses only the 5 notes of the pentatonic scale (generally major, unless we're talking basic guitar soloing!). The harmony which occurs underneath can't possibly be restricted to those 5 notes - there would be a pretty sparse harmonic structure. – Tim Jan 18 at 21:26
  • @Tim, agreed! That's why it's inappropriate to apply terms that describe harmonic function of the underlying tonal center. – jdjazz Jan 18 at 21:29
  • "Pentatonic means 5 notes". That's right, but it applies both to the melody and the underlying harmony. This means that no harmonic concept based on 12 semitones could be applied: the only available "harmony" is based on bichords (major second, minor/major third, perfect fourths and fifhts, minor seventh) and just two major and minor triads. Whenever you add a harmony that uses any note that's not in the pentatonic scale, you are playing/writing pentatonic music. It is music that is [based] on pentatonic scales, but that's just a consideration on the context. – musicamante Jan 19 at 5:03
  • Also, the assumption of the major pentatonic being the most common is vague and misleading. Yes, generally, the minor is considered as the "relative minor pentatonic", but that's mostly based on assumptions built upon Western music. The fact that most popular music (including rock and blues and their further influence) uses the minor pentatonic is not just based on the popularization of that music, usage of guitars, etc, but also on physics, psychoacustics and ethnologic reasons: the minor third interval is much more easy to perform (that's why the Kodály method introduces it first) -> – musicamante Jan 19 at 5:17
  • -> and it's also the more common in nature (ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5111702) followed by the major third and then perfect fourth. In fact, most child tunes and lullabies are, first of all, based on a minor third, usually extended to the perfect fourth. That could be also linked to the ancient modes, with what is nowadays considered the "doric mode" (probably the most common one at the time) as main protagonist, having the ascending minor third and perfect fourth as basic intervals, and an important role for the tone below the "tonic" (the subtonic). – musicamante Jan 19 at 5:26

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