What are the Technical Names in Music?

What are the Technical Names in Music? & What do They Mean?

No matter the level of music theory you’re at, you will meet a lot of names and terms throughout your learning. Some of the first ones you should learn about are a group of basic (but very important) terms known as ‘technical names’.

What are the technical names? The ‘technical names’ in music are a set of 7 terms that give a label to every note of the scale. Every note is assigned a different technical name that reflects its position in the scale. The 7 technical names are listed here:

  • Tonic: 1st note (or degree) of the scale
  • Supertonic: 2nd degree
  • Mediant: 3rd degree
  • Subdominant: 4th degree
  • Dominant: 5th degree
  • Submediant: 6th degree
  • Leading tone: 7th degree

Technical Names: Examples in Major Scales

Before we move on to some examples, keep in mind that the term ‘degree’ in music refers to the position of a note within its scale. So the first degree is the first note of the scale; the second degree is the second note of the scale and so on.

The term is useful as it shows that we’re referring to the tonic as the first degree (the first note). All the other notes follow after it up to 7, after which we get another 1 (another tonic).

As we mentioned, the technical names work with any major or minor scale so let’s look at some examples. We’ll start with a simple one in C major:

1. Tonic = C
2. Supertonic = D 
3. Mediant = E
4. Subdominant = F

5. Dominant = G
6. Submediant = A
7. Leading tone = B

The technical names in the scale of C major

Here’s another example. These are the technical names in the scale of D major:

1. Tonic = D
2. Supertonic = E
3. Mediant = F sharp
4. Subdominant = G

5. Dominant = A
6. Submediant = B
7. Leading tone = C sharp

The technical names in the scale of D major

And here is the scale of B flat major with its technical names:

1. Tonic = B flat
2. Supertonic = C
3. Mediant = D
4. Subdominant = E flat

5. Dominant = F
6. Submediant = G
7. Leading tone = A

The technical names in the scale of B flat major

As we can see in these examples, the technical names show the position of the notes within their scale. They don’t refer to any specific note.

For example, the tonic of the C major scale is the note C. But if the scale we’re using is B flat major, then the tonic is the note B flat and the note C becomes the supertonic.


Technical Names: Examples in Minor Scales

The technical names apply just the same in minor scales as they do in major scales.

Here’s an example with the scale of D harmonic minor:

1. Tonic = D
2. Supertonic = E
3. Mediant = F
4. Subdominant = G

5. Dominant = A
6. Submediant = B flat
7. Leading tone = C sharp

The technical names in the scale of D harmonic minor
The technical names in the scale of D harmonic minor

Here’s an example with the scale of C harmonic minor:

1. Tonic = C
2. Supertonic = D
3. Mediant = E flat
4. Subdominant = F

5. Dominant = G
6. Submediant = A flat
7. Leading tone = B

The technical names in the scale of C harmonic minor

There is one exception and it occurs in the natural minor scale. It’s the technical name known as the subtonic. The ‘subtonic’ replaces the term ‘leading tone’ when the 7th degree is a whole step away from the tonic rather than the more common half step (or semitone).

The 7th degree becomes a ‘subtonic’ if it is a whole step away from the tonic.

In case these terms are still new to you, a half step is just the distance between any two notes that are next to each other. On the piano that’s the distance from one key to the very next key (regardless whether that’s up or down, black or white). A whole step is equal to two half steps so it’s the distance between any two notes (or keys) that have one intervening note in between.

The subtonic appears in natural minor scales because the 7th degree is not sharpened like it is in the major scale. Here’s the natural minor scale on E. 

The technical names in the scale of E natural minor. Notice that the 7th degree is now called ‘subtonic’. 

So while the term ‘leading tone’ implies that the 7th is only a half step away from the tonic, the term ‘subtonic’ means that the 7th note is a whole step away from the tonic. Here is another example in the scale of B natural minor:

1. Tonic = B
2. Supertonic = C sharp
3. Mediant = D
4. Subdominant = E

5. Dominant = F sharp
6. Submediant = G
7. Subtonic = A

The technical names in the scale of B natural minor.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to learn the technical names even if they’re completely new to you. A great way to remember the technical names is to actually know what they mean and where they come from.


What do the Technical Names in Music Mean?

It’s quite fascinating (and useful!) to look at where the technical names actually come from. Each one of these terms reflects the note’s position in the scale and so it also reveals the note’s relationship to the tonic (or we can say, it describes the note’s distance from the tonic).

So the tonic, which we’ve met several times already, is the technical name for the 1st note of the scale. A little bit of research reveals that the word ‘tonic’ comes from the word ‘tone’, which simply means ‘musical sound’. So think of the tonic simply as ‘home sound’.

The Dominant is the 5th note of the scale and it’s called so because it’s the most important note after the tonic. It’s very important because the it’s the chord that helps establish the tonic as tonic. One note or chord by itself could belong to various keys but that same chord preceded by its own dominant, establishes it strongly as tonic.

Tonic and Dominant of C

With the tonic and dominant in place, we can move on to the rest of the technical names. 

Sitting halfway in between tonic and dominant is the Mediant. The term comes from the Latin word meaning middle.

Tonic, mediant and dominant in C major: C - E - G.
Tonic, mediant and dominant in C major: C – E – G.

While the dominant is a fifth up from tonic, the fourth note is a fifth down from tonic and so it is known as the Subdominant. The prefix ‘sub’ referring to the fact that it is down from the tonic.

Tonic, subdominant and dominant in C major: C, F and G.
Tonic, subdominant and dominant in C major: C, F and G.

And just like the mediant is halfway between tonic and dominant, the Submediant is sitting halfway between tonic and subdominant. Notice the prefix ‘sub’ once again.

Tonic, submediant and subdominant in C major: C, A and F.
Tonic, submediant and subdominant in C major: C, A and F.

The second degree is called Supertonic. The word ‘super’ originally meant ‘that which comes after’. So obviously the supertonic is the note that comes after the tonic.

At the same time, the seventh note is called the Leading Tone, as it leads us back to the tonic.

Leading tone, tonic and supertonic in C major: B, C and D.
Leading tone, tonic and supertonic in C major: B, C and D.

Of course, the triads built on each degree are known by the same technical names. For example, the triad constructed on the tonic note will be known as the tonic triad (or tonic chord); and the triad whose root is the subdominant note is called the subdominant triad or subdominant chord.

The technical names apply to triads and chords just the same as they do to individual notes.
The technical names apply to triads and chords just the same as they do to individual notes. 

The Technical Names and Tonality

The term ‘tonality’ refers to music that works with a tonic: the ‘home sound’. Very, very often the tonic is the beginning and the end of a melody or a chord progression.

You’ve probably noticed by now that the technical names themselves refer back to the tonic. For example, the dominant is a fifth up from tonic; the supertonic is a step up from tonic; the leading tone is a half step down from tonic and so on.

But there’s even more to this pattern! As if a confirmation of the principle of tonality, the tonic is in the centre of all these other tones. It’s like the tonic is a tree trunk out of which the smaller branches come out of each side.

As we’ve seen, the leading note is a step below tonic while the supertonic is a step above. The mediant is a 3rd above tonic while the submediant a 3rd below. The dominant is a fifth above tonic while the subdominant is a 5th below and so on – the tonic is at the centre. 

The tonic is at the centre with 3 degrees to the left and 3 degrees to the right.
The tonic is at the centre with 3 degrees to the left and 3 degrees to the right.

We don’t often see this pattern because we’re used to scales in which we begin and end on the tonic. But this way of looking at the technical names with the tonic in the centre is just as useful.


Technical Names and Roman Numerals

In musical analysis, the technical names can be shortened into roman numerals from one (I) to seven (VII). The tonic, for example, is I; and the dominant is V. Here are all the roman numerals from one to seven:

I                       II                     III                    IV                    V                     VI      

Here’s an example in the scale of C major:

Roman Numerals on the triads of the C major scale.
Roman Numerals on the triads of the C major scale

Roman Numerals go even a step further. Notice that to distinguish between the qualities of the triads, we use capital letters (uppercase) to indicate major and augmented chords and small letters (lowercase) to indicate minor and diminished chords.

We also use a small plus sign to denote augmented chords and a small circle to denote diminished chords. For example: III+ and vii° in the triads of a harmonic minor scale:

Here’s an example in the scale of E harmonic minor (with the 7th sharpened):

Roman numerals on the chords of E minor.
Roman numerals on the chords of E minor.

So just like the technical terms, Roman Numerals reveal every note’s position in the scale with the tonic being one: I. Here are a few bars from Schubert’s Ecossaise No. 8, D. 299. Underneath the music, the Roman Numerals tell us what the chord progression is.

As you can see, they’re very useful for a quick analysis. Imagine having a full piece of music (32 bars and more) and having to write “tonic”, “dominant”, “subdominant” instead of “I”, “V”, “IV”, and so on.

Roman Numerals in Schubert's 'Ecossaise no. 8, D. 299'
Roman Numerals in Schubert’s ‘Ecossaise no. 8, D. 299′

Technical Names and Solfège

In ear training exercises, the notes of the scale are not labelled by their technical names but by what is known as solfège syllables. In this system, every degree of the scale is assigned a syllable. The reason is that ear training sometimes requires singing and the syllables make it easier.

Imagine having to sing the terms “supertonic” or “leading tone” on a quick note – it’s impossible! The solfège system (also known as ‘sol-fa’) makes this easy by assigning these simple syllables to each note:

Solfège syllables in C major
Solfège syllables in C major


Common Questions about the Technical Names in Music

What do we need the technical names for?As we’ve seen the technical names give us a way of describing the notes of a scale. They are important because they show us how everything comes out of the tonic.

In more practical terms, the technical names are useful so we can speak of things like “a raised submediant” or “subdominant chord” or “the dominant chord” then we know.. regardless of scale the dominant is the triad built on the 5th degree of the scale.

Are there technical names for notes with accidentals? notes outside the scale)? There aren’t any new terms for notes that are outside the scale. What we do to indicate these notes is simply add words like “raised” or “lowered”. For example, the note F sharp in C major can be referred to as “raised subdominant” – the word ‘raised’ implying that it is sharpened. And for example, the note D flat can be referred to as “lowered supertonic” – the word ‘lowered’ implying that it is flattened.

Do the technical names work with other scales? To some extent, they do. The 7-note scales have been (and still are) the standard for about 300 years and they’re the basis of tonal music. As we’ve seen, the technical names work well in this system because while they give a name to every note, they’re at the same time describing every note’s distance from the tonic. 

With hexatonic scales (six-note scales) and pentatonic scales (five-note scales), the technical names work with some limitations. For example, we can say that the scale C D E G A (known as the major pentatonic) has five notes: tonic, supertonic, mediant, dominant and submediant. And we can also say that the scale doesn’t make use of the subdominant and the leading note (but that doesn’t mean that this scale is not as good – it’s just different!).

In this case, notice that the amount of notes in the scale doesn’t change the terms. The note ‘G’ in a scale that begins on ‘C’, for example, is always a fifth above (or a ‘dominant’) even if it’s actually the fourth note of this particular scale. This is because the term dominant refers to a note that is a fifth above its tonic. The distance from the tonic is more significant than the amount of notes in the scale.

Major pentatonic scale on G
Major pentatonic scale on G

The technical names are not useful with other kinds of music. If the notes are not organized around a tonic, the technical names are useless and other labelling systems are used.