Let's say we're talking about a song in C, and at some point in that particular song, we happen to be playing an E minor chord. In this case, Em is known as the iii chord in the key C major, because it's built on the 3rd degree of the C major scale.

What if we want to talk about the note G inside that Em chord? It's the 3rd note if we count up the (Phrygian) chord scale from E, but is there a known term, like "degree", that would help us refer to G, the third note in the chord-scale without confusing it with the third degree of the key-scale?

I think maybe I've heard "aspect" used to distinguish from "degree", but can anyone confirm this, or tell me what's most commonly said? Thanks very much.

4 Answers 4


In my experience, to avoid this confusion, people generally treat the chord-scale as a giant chord, naming each of its notes as if it were part of the chord. root, third, fifth, seventh, ninth, and so on. In other words, the "2" would be referred to as a 9 regardless of if it's inside the voicing or above it. This would give rise to the feeling that "scale degree 2" probably belongs to the key and not to some theoretical chord scale invoked by the moment. And that a "third" would probably belong to the chord of the moment, as that seems to best fit the context.

As for differentiating the function of a note in the chord from the function of the note in the key, it would generally be understood that "G" is the third of the chord without further clarification. If you wanted to talk about its function in the key, you could say it's the fifth note of the key or you could add the emphasis that it's the third note of the chord. But if you're looking for terminology to clarify between these two roles, I don't know of one that's in common contemporary use. Maybe someone else can clarify whether there is indeed proper terminology.

The only thing I can think of which comes close to this is the function name of the key's pitches. You have the tonic, supertonic, mediant, etc. However many of these terms are used only rarely and therefore may not help if your aim is to add clarity.

  • By the way, the role of the note in the current harmonic structure is usually more important than the role it has in the key. There are some exceptions as when the root or fifth of the key are used in the melody to give stability to chords borrowed from other modes, or when the leading tone of the key creates a deceptive resolution. But in general, pitches considered individually give more meaning to the chord they're living in than to the overall key. Hope this helps!
    – Grey
    Jun 30, 2014 at 2:24
  • Thanks for the context, it's helpful for sure. "Note of the chord" seems like as good a term as any. Jun 30, 2014 at 2:25
  • This is a good answer! @Duncan, if it helped you, it's a good idea to upvote it right away, but before accepting (check mark) it's a good idea to allow 24-48 hours for other people to answer. There might be an even better answer out there, and people are more likely to post it if there isn't one already accepted. Jun 30, 2014 at 4:05
  • I agree, and if someone does come up with a better answer or is able to add information I left out, it's perfectly acceptable to "unaccept" my answer and accept a different answer.
    – Grey
    Jun 30, 2014 at 4:10
  • 1
    I don't think I've heard of any term other than saying "of the chord" (if it could be ambiguous). As in: "The seventh scale degree is the third of the dominant." Jul 1, 2014 at 14:32

I think 'chordal' is the term you're searching for. As in that G would be a 'chordal minor third'. Chordal coming from 'of the chord'.As opposed to its place in the parent scale of 'dominant'note.


I think if I were trying to make this distinction, I'd call the first referent (the em in C) "the third degree of the scale" and the second referent (minor third of that em chord) the "third above the root":

Ie. "In C major, the chord of em is built on the third scale degree, and the note G is the third above its root."



I recently found the term "factor", which describes this idea: Wikipedia article on "Factor (chord)"

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