Degrees and Intervals, Oh My!

I know this been hashed over a few times on this forum, but after my misreading / misunderstanding of a recent post, I had put together some information that someone (especially a newer bass player) may find useful. As people process information and learn differently, I figured I’d share some information that helped me with my personal understanding of some important musical concepts.

When musicians refer to Degrees, it is very important to understand the context from which the speaker is speaking, otherwise its very easy for the listener or student to get confused.

The first way of describing degrees is to refer to each note in terms of its POSITION in the Major scale. For example in a C Major Scale, we have the following notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, (C). In this method of describing a scale we will assign a number or designation to each note in the scale, starting with the first note, in this case “C”. For example: C (Root or 1), D (2 or 2nd), E (3 or 3rd), F (4 or 4th), G (5 or 5th), A (6 or 6th), B (7 or 7th), C (Octave or Root again). As shown below in the basic “box pattern” of a major scale.


So far so good, and I hope not too confusing. Using this method, other scales or modes are often described in relation to the shared Root note Major scale. Say for example someone using this method would like to describe the pattern of a C minor scale (C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, (C)) it would be described in terms of its relation to the C Major scale. So in a C minor scale we can see that the E is flat (1 half step or fret lower), the A is flat and the B is flat in comparison to the C Major Scale.

This is pretty easy to visualize. Most beginner players know (or will know it after a couple lessons) the “box pattern” of the Major scale. If you tell that player to flat the 3rd, the 6th and the 7th notes, you are telling them to take the Major scale that they know and adapt it to a new scale pattern starting from the same root. If, you wanted to teach this same student a Dorian scale, you just tell them to flat the 3rd and 7th notes. And so forth. There’s nothing wrong with this approach and makes approaching new scales relatively easy to a beginner, but it can lead to confusion when other degree methods are learned or being utilized.

The second way to describe a degree is in relation of one note to another note IN THAT SCALE. This is similar to what was discussed above, but there are some subtle differences. I’ve always call this Scale Degree in my head, but there’s probably a proper or better name for this. To use this method one simply counts the number of notes (including the starting note) between target note and destination note - giving us a Unity, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th and Octave (I don’t believe these terms are generally going to be used outside of a single octave, there’s probably some terminology for this but I’ve not studied that as of yet).

Using this Scale Degree method, with a C Major scale as an example, if we ascend from a C to an E we’ve “gone up a 3rd” and from E to G, again we’ve gone up a 3rd. Ascending from a C to a G we’ve gone up a 5th. Descending works the same way, if we descend from C to G, we’ve gone down a 4th. Ascending by two 3rds is a 5th. And so forth.

If we receive an instruction saying play an ascending C Major scale skipping by 3rds. We can understand that to mean it should be played as such: C followed by E, D followed by F, E followed by G, F followed by A, G followed by B, A followed by C, B followed by D (for sake of completeness), and lastly C. In tab format, it looks like this:

Lastly, we will discuss Intervals.

Intervals are a measurement of distance between 2 different notes chromatically, ascending or descending. This is counted in half steps (each fret), NOT including the note started on.

So, a Chromatic Scale (playing every note from Root to Octave), starting on C ascending = C, C# (Db), D, D# (Eb), E (Fb), F (E#), F# (Gb), G, G# (Ab), A, A# (Bb), B (Cb), and C (B#) - see chart below.


If we take the C Major scale as an example, when describing the Interval between C to G, we are counting # of half-steps (again, not including the starting note). To get from C to G we are ascending 7 half-steps, which is called a (Perfect) Fifth (see chart above). Descending from G to C would be a (Perfect) Fourth. And so on. This is a more precise way of looking at the relation of notes in a scale, because, in this context, if we start on Root C and I tell you to “go a third” I haven’t actually given you any instruction. There’s a Minor Third (3 half steps - which brings us to a D#/Eb) and there’s a Major Third (4 half steps - which brings us to an E) - so, which are you supposed to do? You don’t know with the given information unless you know the way the scale is constructed in terms of Intervals and can imply which of the thirds makes most sense in context.

So, lets take this further. The Major Scale is constructed as follows: Root (C) ascend by a Major Second (D), ascend by a Major Second (E), ascend by a Minor Second (F), ascend by a Major Second (G), ascend by a Major Second (A), ascend by a Major Second (B), ascend by a Minor Second (C).

Or if looked by whole-steps (2 half-steps) and half-steps: W W H W W W H.

Ok, so now this gives us more information to make sense of the short-hand that is often used. In the case of a (Perfect) Fifth for a C Major scale, it would be a G (7 half-steps from first note). Another way of looking at the Fifth in a Major scale is to say it is a Major Third followed by a Minor Third. We can really get deep into the weeds from here, so I leave this as an exercise to explore and discuss.

Below is a picture of a 5 String Bass fret-board showing all valid notes in the key signature of A (shown in red)) and I’ve charted out the number of half-steps from the tonic A up to 12, within 2 complete octaves from pitch A1. Blue boxes represent valid notes in A Major. Half steps go from 0 through 12 ascending, and 0 through -12 descending starting from A2 (second full octave) to better show the Interval relationship between the 0 and ascending or descending from there. So, if starting on 0 and ascending through 7 brings us to a Fifth, but descending from 0 to -5 (5 half steps) brings us to a Fourth. This is a full 12 half steps, which defines the octave. The scale of A Major was chosen on 5 string as it’s the only major scale I could think of that that completes a full -12 to 12 sequence both vertically across 5 frets and horizontally across all 24 frets.

That’s enough for now. I hope some people find it useful.


This is actually super important from a theory perspective as all of the mainly used chords are made from stacking thirds. There are others but this is a critical relationship to understand.


This is great, but probably still a tough read for many. I would always suggest for everyone to work that out on their own, as it is more likely to stick that way.

There is a way of looking at this by arranging the information as different levels of abstraction.

The highest level of abstraction gives you the blueprint or recipe for constructing a scale. For the major scale this blueprint is: W W H W W W H
(there are many other scales, which have a different recipe (“DNA”) and sometimes even more or less notes, but let’s not go there here).
If you start this sequence at another position than the first, and put the non-used bits at the end, but otherwise not re-arrange the sequence, you will get the modes of the major scale.

The second level of abstraction gives you the scale degrees (and the intervallic relations to the starting note, i.e. root). So, for the ionic mode we have: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7; if we start on the fourth degree (but calling the starting note 1 (root) again), we get 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7 (aka lydian mode), if we start at the sixth degree, we get 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 (aka aeolian mode) and so on.
This is much more practically useful and applicable info, but you need to learn all this (as opposed to just remembering W W H W W W H and deduce everything from there).

The lowest level is then, if course, to make it really concrete and put specific note names to the degrees. E.g., F mixolydian is exactly (and nothing else): F G A Bb C D Eb
This is super useful if you need to play over an F7 chord, but really doesn’t provide you much in terms of how you’d arrive at this information (or how you’d use it when faced with a Eb7 chord).

For me, the second level is a good compromise of functional information and applicable information.

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To reiterate what @joergkutter said - this is great for you, and I’m very stoked that you’re putting together these abstract and theoretical concepts in a way that it’s sinking in and working out.

However, to all the beginning players out there that are looking at this with big question marks, or to anyone who has ever looked at any theory/scale/chord/fretboard diagram and felt a sharp intake of breath and wave of anxiety…

Don’t worry about this stuff.
This is all material in a beginning college music theory course, and is not the kind of thing that a beginning bassist need know. And, it won’t necessarily help you be a better bassist…
Unless it has a real bass-playing application.

None of this is necessary to learn the bass and play groovy songs.
And, if ever any of this should become necessary, there will be an application for it.
Theory without a practical application is always a live grenade.

So, great stuff @brik1970, and stoked this is working for you.
To anyone who is getting the Theory Heebeejeebees - don’t worry about it.
As @joergkutter pointed out - this is a very abstract way to discuss and see the physical and musical connections between notes and scales.
It can also happen in your ears and your fingers.
Fear not!

@brik1970 - I wish you the very best on this epic music theory quest you’re on!


Thanks for keeping us grounded, @Gio :smile:

This should never be forgotten or neglected (even when you dip your toes into theory)!!

But, yeah, theory can be fun also (if you’re so inclined) :wink:


No doubt.

@Gio - thank you… I’m having fun in the abstract world at the moment. Need to ground myself soon and get back to actually PLAYING… lol

Seriously though, part of the reason for my post was because over the past year I’ve watched a bunch of videos and read quite a bit. I am grasping what I’m viewing and reading, but I trip myself up when synthesizing the information from various sources, as each is effectively using a different language to describe same or related topics. Putting it all together coherently can be a bit of a mental exercise. And of course, putting into practice is another matter entirely.