Diatonic Scales

Diatonic Scales

Diatonic Scales

A scale is called diatonic scale when it is a mode, or variation, of the major scale. This includes the natural minor scale and all 7 of the diatonic modes (of which the major and minor scales are two).

The word “diatonic” is Greek, and it means “across the octave.” The name refers to the fact that the structure of diatonic scales is such that there is an even distribution of 7 notes across the 12-note octave. There is never, in any diatonic scale, more than a full (whole) step between two notes, and the half- steps are spread out by at least two full steps.

While there are 7 diatonic scales — called the diatonic modes, which includes the major scale and the minor scale — there is only one diatonic structure. This is because all 7 of those scales are defined in terms of one another.

In fact, they are generated from one another (though in most cases they are said to be generated from the major scale because it is the most fundamental scale).

They share a structure because they are effectively the same 7-note pattern beginning at different notes/points (if you treat the first note of the major scale as the first note of the diatonic structure, then you can define a completely different scale moving up that structure but beginning on the second note, or the fifth note, or any other note — just like the minor pentatonic modes).

Since there is only in fact one diatonic structure, it is possible to talk both about diatonic scales (meaning the modes of the major scale) and also about THE diatonic scale (as in the underlying structure of those modes).

This is an exclusive usage and understanding of the term “diatonic scale”, which is not entirely consistent, but is by far the most common and recommended. Some theorists also include harmonic and melodic minor modes as diatonic for specific reasons, but this is much rarer and can cause some confusion.

7 Note Diatonic Scales - Natural Major And Natural Minor Scale

As we know now, the most basic, fundamental type of 7-note scale is called a “diatonic scale”, and this category includes what are probably the two most easily recognizable scales by name: the natural major scale (usually simply “the major scale”) and the natural minor scale (usually simply “the minor scale”).

These two scales form the harmonic and melodic bedrock that Western music lays on and has laid on for a very long time, and similar scales are found throughout the history of world music (in traditional Indian music, for instance).

It is worth noting now that just like with the minor pentatonic and major pentatonic, natural major and natural minor scales are simply the modes of each other, but with major scale being thought of as the most fundamental diatonic scale.

Also worth noting is that the 5-note major pentatonic scale is just like the 7-note natural major scale, except that two notes are omitted. Same goes for the minor pentatonic and the natural minor scale. These pentatonic scales came from the desire to remove the intervals that are a semitone apart in the diatonic structure.

Because of that, minor and major pentatonic scales are essentially simplified and safer sounding minor and major scales. See scale comparison chart later in the book and this will be crystal clear.

Why Is Major Scale The Most Important Scale To Learn?

Beyond the pentatonic scale, the first scale most musicians learn is the major scale. It is also the first scale most of us, even at a young age, can recognize. It is the foundation in Western music, and virtually all 7-note scales are derived from it in one way or another — it is the yardstick against which they are defined. For all of these reasons, it is often the first piece of real music theory that instructors introduce to beginning musicians.

The major scale is the scale that results when you sing that familiar “do, re, me, fa, sol, la, ti, do” (singing notes in this way is referred to as solfege). It is generally described as a happy, uplifting scale, and it is easy to produce highly consonant melodies using it. For this reason, many pop songs are written using the major scale.

The intervals that define any given scale are described according to their relationship to the intervals that make up a major scale. In other words, all scales are in some way measured against the major scale.

This 7-note scale is the foundation for all diatonic harmony; all of the variations of the major and natural minor scales can be generated by the major scale, and since all non-diatonic harmony can be seen as diatonic harmony that has been altered (chromatically) in some way, there are virtually no scales that aren’t somehow derivable from the major scale and its variations.

In most types of Western music, from classical to celtic to pop, major scale forms the foundation of the harmony. Minor pentatonic might be regarded as ‘the king’ in all blues music, but even that scale is derived from the natural minor scale, which is again derived from the major scale.

In Western music everything relates back to major scale in one way or another and that’s why it is the most important scale to learn.


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