How does one recognize the scale degrees in a short (2 to 4-ish bars) melodic dictation?

An example would be a piece is played, then you are asked for which scale degree is not part of the piece, choices from Do to Ti.

I can imagine that if you can (1) sing it back and (2) recognize the tonic, you can work back. But then my question becomes: how on earth do you learn to do that? Are there good resources that break down this process?

The answers I have found to related questions either don't address pulling out the scale degree from a melody, or they reference things to practice (singing scales, triads, sequentials, interval recognition, functional ear training apps, etc) without linking them to how they will accomplish the task at hand.

I might actually need to figure out how to identify the key or Do note, but, well, sure: how do you do that? The only thing I can imagine is singing or playing possible scales along with the melody and hearing which one fits; that seems haphazard, plus requires you be able to sing or play consistently...

The only thing Karpinski says in his book is that the tonic will feel like restful. Which is kind of a tautology: the tonic will feel like the tonic.

(I am working through the online materials for Karpinski sight reading, chapter 3).


  • 1
    Do you have much trouble to recognize the key quickly? Is it because the specific exercises are tricky, or a difficulty in general? I would think getting the key quickly is the... key to benefit from this type of exercises. Dec 14, 2023 at 19:28
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    Does this answer your question? How to determine scale degrees by ear? Dec 14, 2023 at 21:07
  • Correct, I have no idea how one would recognize the key quickly. Which really seems to be the same thing as identifying which note is the tonic. Dec 14, 2023 at 22:42
  • It's not possible in the general case. The dictation will have been chosen to have an appropriate level of difficulty.
    – phoog
    Dec 15, 2023 at 1:06
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    Recognizing scale degrees requires context. If that isn't enough, you can only make arbitrary assumptions. The amount of notes, and their time relevance (duration, repeats, and position in the context of the rhythm grid) may help, as it possibly provides a more statistical model about the possible tonality, but that's not a sufficient guarantee: you need a bigger context, possibly considering the whole piece. For instance, imagine 2 bars of alternating F/E semiquavers: you may think that they would be I/VII or IV/III. But what if I tell you that I'm just playing "Für Elise" in B♭ minor? Dec 15, 2023 at 4:24

1 Answer 1


One person's anecdotal 2 cents. Here are the steps I perceive to happen when my brain translates notes I hear.

  • I hear music: a melody, chordal harmony with bass notes, rhythm, or usually all of them.
  • I imagine how I'd play that on the piano or the guitar
  • The imagined "how I'd play" is relative to an imagined tonal center (home/center pitch), because I don't have absolute pitch
  • One of the pitches I hear in the melody (and chords, they're all happening in the same common space), or relative to the melody if the melody doesn't happen to use the tonic, gets positioned as the imagined center automatically. There's always a reference point.

I can move the imagined tonic freely at will, like playing the tune in a different key. Or playing the melody just differently harmonically, like C-E-G, it could be 1-3-5 in C, or an upper structure triad 5-7-9 for F in Fmaj9, or 7-9-11 in Dm11. It's up to my imagination to decide where I want to place it. The question about scale degrees is translated to the instrument. To answer the question "what scale degree is this note", I basically look at the imagined guitar fretboard or piano keyboard in my mind, and see where the melody note is relative to the tonal center. "Oh it's there, that's a flat six."

And then the interesting questions: through what steps, what exercises, what stages in life, has my brain obtained this functionality. And the next question: how can random person X make their brain do the same? And: is that the only approach to handling melody dictation, or are there others, and how does random person X make their brain handle those approaches.

The way I have learned to do this, is completely based on playing by ear. I have done it so much that the translation from hearing to imagining how to reproduce the heard music on guitar or piano happens automatically without thinking, whether I want it or not. There is no logical thinking or calculation or remembering rules. There is only concrete doing in practice, or imagining doing it.

I don't think it's feasible to give instructions in an answer on this site, on how a random person will learn to take melody dictation. So that the answer would make someone able to do it and accept the answer like, "I followed this recipe and now I can do it."

  • Great answer - that's pretty well what I do when trying to accompany something, not given a key. Such as open mic times. I think I go one stage further, and play one note, which I then relate to what I perceive is the root of the key, so, maybe I play an F, and think 'that's ^4 in this key, which therefore must be key C'. So, straight into wearing my 'C hat', which covers most, if not all, of that particular song. As you say, a lifetime of just doing it...
    – Tim
    Dec 15, 2023 at 16:04

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