For ever, I've only called scale degrees by their (Arabic) numbers. As opposed to chords, where I use Roman Numerals. Now, I've found out they really ought to have carets, or circumflexes over them. That seems somewhat superfluous, as those numbers can't mean much else.

Or - can they? They're supposedly to signify scale degrees. But the question springs up, which scale? Were it purely the major scale, it would make sense. But consider the note A, in scale with root C.

Major scale says A is ^6. Major pentatonic scale says ^5, chromatic scale says ^10 !

Somewhat confusing with or without '^'. Will someone please make some sense?

  • 2
    Related: What are the degrees of a pentatonic scale called?
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 26, 2021 at 15:37
  • > "I've only called scale degrees by their (Arabic) numbers" The roman numeral chord numbers refer to scale degrees; that is their whole purpose. The notation V7 means "the dominant 7th chord, rooted at the fifth degree of the scale". The roman numeral degrees came first, then the chord notation got applied to them. Scale degrees are also called by names like: tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, ...
    – Kaz
    Commented Dec 27, 2021 at 17:35
  • @Kaz - aware of all that. Arabic numbers could refer to chords, too, it's just that I prefer not to go down that route. NNS does, and that's the way it is. I'll go your way, you go yours. Using RN means there's more to come - which actual chord will that 'root' be part of.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 28, 2021 at 8:58

1 Answer 1


It's a convention that is most often used in circumstances where Arabic numerals can have multiple meanings. For example, imagine writing a paper that discusses scale degrees, finger numbers, and figured bass indications. The number 3 could apply to any of those, so adding a caret helps differentiate scale degrees from the other usages.

Scale degree usage presumes the scale itself is known, so they are used without ambiguity.

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    Also intervals. In formal text these would usually be spelled out (“major sixth”), but in casual written conversation (like here) “6” might get thrown around, and even in analysis it might be “M6,” which I suppose raises the possibility that at some point you could be analyzing intervals without regard for their quality, and just using arabic numerals. Commented Dec 26, 2021 at 13:43
  • @AndyBonner note there are two naming convention. One uses "major" and "minor" 6. Another uses "natural" and "flat" 6. These are two different languages. And finally in casual speech one may say "sixth" to call any diatonic sixth. Commented Dec 26, 2021 at 18:25

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