One of the most important scales used in Western music is the diatonic scale.
The diatonic scale is a term used in music theory to refer to a group of seven different musical notes that constitute a scale.
Musicians rely on musical scales to create melodies and harmonies that are pleasing to the ear.
In this blog post, we will explore the diatonic scale in detail, including its history, structure, and applications.
What Is a Diatonic Scale?
A diatonic scale is simply a collection of seven musical notes from which the notes in a piece of music might be chosen.
This scale is also known as a heptatonic scale because it is made up of seven different musical notes.
These seven notes are placed in a specific order, starting from the root note, also known as the first note, and ending on the leading note, or an octave.
Specifically, the seven notes of the scale are arranged at regular intervals in tones and semitones. Altogether, the scale normally has five tones and two semitones within an octave.
Having two semitone intervals (half steps) and five tone intervals (whole steps) within one octave is essential to considering a scale as a diatonic scale.
Also, to qualify as a diatonic scale, the two semitone intervals must be separated by two or three tones.
The relative positions of these seven notes to the tonic are referred to as the scale degrees. Specifically, the notes of the scale are arranged in the 7th or 8th degree when using an octave.
Furthermore, diatonic scales possess the important characteristic of using all seven pitch letter names (A, B, C, D, E, F, and G) in sequence without any omissions.
This particular trait distinguishes diatonic scales and contributes to their characteristic sound, making them a fundamental component in various forms of music.
This nature of the diatonic scale is well-established on keyboard instruments.
Basically, all the white keys from key C to C above or below are on a pre-set diatonic scale. So, if you play all the white notes on a piano keyboard, starting from key C, you’ve played a diatonic scale.
Specifically, the scale is called the major diatonic scale and is the most common musical scale in Western music.
History of the Diatonic Scale
The diatonic scale has a long and complex history, spanning centuries and multiple cultures.
This scale has been used in Western music for hundreds of years. Its origins can be traced back to ancient Greece, where it was used in the construction of musical instruments.
Musicians in the Western world during the ancient Greek era of 800 AD initiated the use of intricate music systems to categorise notes into various orders, ultimately inventing the names of these notes.
This led to the development of a musical note grouping called a diatonic scale. The diatonic scale is also known as the seven modes, which people also refer to as church modes.
These terms essentially describe the same music system that originated in the Middle Ages and utilised a diatonic system.
Specifically, the Greeks divided the octave into seven notes. They named the seven notes after the first seven letters of their alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.
Moreover, they believed that the diatonic scale had a particular mathematical beauty and symmetry. As a result, they used it to create complex musical compositions and harmonies.
As time passed, the diatonic scale spread throughout Europe, where it was adopted by various cultures and adapted to suit their musical styles.
Middle Age Period
In the Middle Ages, the diatonic scale became the basis for Gregorian chant, which was the primary form of liturgical music in the Catholic Church.
During this period, the scales corresponding to the mediaeval church modes were diatonic.
Depending on which of the seven notes of the diatonic scale is used as the beginning, the positions of the intervals fall at different distances from the starting tone, producing seven different scales.
Of the six remaining scales, two were described as corresponding to two others with a B♭ instead of a B♮.
Thus, mediaeval theory described the church modes as corresponding to only four diatonic scales, two of which had the variable B♮/♭.
These were the modern Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian modes of C major, plus the Aeolian and Ionian modes of F major when B♭ was substituted into the Dorian and Lydian modes of C major, respectively.
In the Renaissance, Heinrich Glarean considered that the modal scales, including a B♭ had to be the result of a transposition.
In his Dodecachordon, he not only described six “natural” diatonic scales but also six “transposed” ones. Specifically, each scale included a B♭, resulting in a total of twelve scales that justified the title of his treatise.
These were the six non-Locrian modes of C major and F major.
Also, during the Renaissance, composers began to experiment with new harmonies and chord progressions.
This led to the development of the major and minor scales. These scales are still used in Western music today.
By the beginning of the Baroque period, the notion of the musical key had been established, describing additional possible transpositions of the diatonic scale.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the diatonic scale became even more important. Basically, famous composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach used it to create some of the most famous works in classical music.
Major and minor scales came to dominate until at least the start of the 20th century, partly. This is because their intervallic patterns are suited to the reinforcement of a central triad.
Some church modes survived into the early 18th century, as well as appearing in classical and 20th-century music.
In the 20th century, the diatonic scale continued to evolve as jazz and other genres incorporated new harmonies and chord progressions into their music.
Today, the diatonic scale remains an essential part of Western music theory, and musicians of all styles and genres use it to create a wide range of musical compositions and harmonies.
I hope this brief lecture has given you a better understanding of the fascinating history of the diatonic scale.
Structure of the Diatonic Scale
The diatonic scale is a seven-note scale that comprises five whole steps and two half steps.
The whole steps are separated by two half steps, while the half steps are separated by three whole steps.
The diatonic scale can be constructed starting on any note, and it is named after the note that it starts on.
For example, the C major scale is a diatonic scale that starts on the note C.
The notes in the C major scale are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. The whole steps in the scale occur between “C and D”, “D and E”, “F and G”, “G and A”, and “A and B”.
Also, the half steps occur between “E and F”, and “B and C.”
Types Of Diatonic Scale
It is often believed that there is only one type of diatonic scale, but this is not true. In reality, there are several types of diatonic scales.
A crucial aspect that identifies a scale as diatonic is the presence of five tones (or whole steps) and two semitones (or half steps) within its octave. Moreover, the semitones are separated by three tones.
As discussed earlier, the diatonic scale is formed by sequencing seven natural notes in succession, such as C-D-E-F-G-A-B.
This consists entirely of the white keys on a keyboard instrument like a piano or organ.
Moreover, it is important to note that transposing this sequence to another key still results in a diatonic scale.
The most common diatonic scale is the Major scale. However, there are other types of scales that are also diatonic. These are the natural minor scale and the modes.
So, the three basic types of diatonic scale are:
- Major scale
- Natural minor scale
The major scale is one of the most fundamental concepts in music theory.
It is a collection of seven notes arranged in a specific pattern of whole and half steps.
This pattern is the same for all major scales and can be represented by the following sequence of intervals: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half.
The major scale is commonly used in Western music and is often considered to have a “happy” or “bright” sound.
This is due to the specific arrangement of intervals, which creates a sense of resolution and stability.
In contrast, the minor scale, which has a different interval pattern, is often associated with a “sad” or “dark” sound.
To play a major scale, one would typically start on the root note and play the sequence of whole and half steps until reaching the octave.
For example, a C major scale would consist of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. Note that the next C that would follow the B is an octave.
It is important to note that the major scale can start on any note, not just C.
The minor scale is another fundamental concept in music theory, and it is the counterpart to the major scale.
Like the major scale, the minor scale consists of seven notes, but it has a different pattern of whole and half steps.
The most common form of the minor scale is the natural minor scale. The minor scale has the following pattern: whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole.
The natural minor scale has a distinct sound, often described as “sad” or “melancholic.”
This is because of the arrangement of intervals, which creates a sense of tension and unresolvedness.
The seventh note in the natural minor scale is a half-step below the root note. This creates a leading tone that wants to resolve to the root.
To play a natural minor scale, one would typically start on the root note and play the sequence of whole and half steps until reaching the octave.
For example, an A natural minor scale would consist of the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, with the next A being the octave. Like the major scale, the minor scale can start on any note.
There are also other forms of the minor scale, such as the harmonic minor and the melodic minor.
Modes of the Diatonic Scale
The diatonic scale has seven modes, each of which starts on a different note within the scale.
The modes are named after the ancient Greek cities where they were first used. The seven modes are:
- Ionian (major)
- Aeolian (natural minor)
The Ionian mode is the major scale, while the Aeolian mode is the natural minor scale.
Each mode has a unique sound and emotional feel, and they are used extensively in Western music.
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