TonalityGUIDE - basic tonal music theory and analysis for undergraduates
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Chords and Scales
introduction diatonic scales triads diatonic chords chromatic chords embellished chords


major | minor

page 1 | page 2 | page 3

Notes of the scale on which a passage of tonal music is based are called diatonic to distinguish them from the other notes of the chromatic scale. Diatonic is a relative term because a Db, for example, would be diatonic in a passage based on a Db major scale, but chromatic in a passage based on a C major scale.

The major scale is so familiar that it is easy to take it for granted, and comparing it to other scales is a good way of highlighting its properties. The whole-tone scale, for example, is made up of all the same intervals, while the major scale is a mixture of tones and semitones.

The major scale audibly divides the octave into two groups of Tone-Tone-Semitone as shown in the example below. Because the two groups that make up the whole-tone scale consist of three major seconds a major second apart, they do not make the division of the octave audible in the same way. The consequences of this are discussed on page 2 of this section.

[T = tone (major 2nd); ST = semitone (minor 2nd)]




Take 5 minutes away from your computer to play or sing these scales and compare how they sound and feel. The best thing to do is to play each right through and then repeat the scale stopping on a different note each time. You will probably find that stopping on any note of the whole tone scale feels much the same but that the dynamics of the major scale are more complex.


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TonalityGUIDE - Tonal Harmony and Voiceleading - Table of Contents