Learn to improvise. 2004-2005. Lesson 09: degrees.

If you use a scale to make triads by skipping every even note, you get degrees. They are indicated by Roman numbers. E.g. the degrees of the key of C are:
I = c-e-g = C, II = d-f-a = Dm, III = e-g-b = Em, IV = f-a-c = F,
V = g-b-d = G, VI = a-c-e = Am, VII = b-d-f = Bdim.

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(Also chords with 4 notes made this way are called degrees.)
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The root, subdominant chord and dominant chord often are indicated as degree I, IV en V because the notation is short.

Sometimes people say a key is determined by its degrees. This is physically inaccurate. It is like saying a plane is determined by its points, in stead of by 3 points. A key is physically determined by its three main chords, the degrees I, IV and V. The other degrees are deviated from them via the scale. The degrees however belong to the key. One can work with them which the popular scheme C Am Dm G7 illustrates.
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In the beginning you are inclined to think the key of Am will hold during the chords Am and Dm. But as long as this key is not confirmed by E7, the atmosphere is ambiguous. There is no need to go to another scale than C. In this example the chords Am and Dm belong to the key of C. Chord Am might be considered as a replacement for chord C and Dm as one for chord F.

Someone who knows nothing of chords might be able to improvise with degrees. He only has to learn one chord and shift that. De relationship between the degrees automatically takes care of a structure.
Chords in order I, II, III, IV, etc.
Degrees in random order.
Hear course member Fred use degrees.

The system of degrees holds for any scale. We will look at the Spanish gipsy scale as an extra example. The scale has the following notes:
a bb c# d e f g
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Its degrees are:
I= A-c#-e = A, II = bb-d-f = Bb, III = c#-e-g = C#dim, IV = d-f-a = Dm,
V = e-g-bb = Edim, VI = f-a-c# = Faug, VII = g-bb-d = Gm.

All these chords may thus be used in that key.
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Degrees may be used to enter a modulation. E.g. if degree II of a key is equal to degree I of another key it may be a stepping stone:
Modulation of C to Dm: C Dm A7 Dm,
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Other examples:
Modulation of C to Em: C Em B7 Em,
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Modulation of C to Am: C Am E7 Am.
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Modulation between church scales might be seen as degrees, of course.

As the degrees of a key consist exclusively of notes belonging to the scale, the accompaniment within a key has not necessarily to be restricted to the degrees I, IV en V, but may be extended to the other degrees, in order to get more variation. Apart from that the degrees give the possibility to add a melodic element in case the degrees might be used neighboring each other. The chords scheme might have something of an up or down going base line then.

(Sometimes degrees are used to indicate the chords in a scheme, e.g. in stead of Fm7 one writes IVm7. This way one would be independent of a key, provided one would start at degree I for the root of every key to where one modulated. But as this is never the done, this system is confusing and bad.)
1) Play with degrees.
2) Make the degrees of Am.
(Answer: I = a-c-e = Am, II = b-d-f = Bdim, III = c-e-g# = Caug, IV = d-f-a = Dm, V = e-g#-b = E, VI = f-a-c = F, VII = g#-b-d = G#dim.)
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