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Diatonic Scales – What are they?

Understanding musical scales really ought not to be that difficult. However, at times it is actually quite complex. All it really is in its basic form is a dividing up of the space in an octave into steps. Diatonic Scales are just one of those divisions.

For those that might not be familiar with the terminology, let’s start by explaining some of the terms…


Steps and Semitones

Dividing the octave up into steps, it is important to know what it all means. You will often see the expression ‘step.’ You go one ‘step’ up or down. This means a full-tone. But you will also see another description. The semitone, on the other hand, is known as a ‘half step.’

The ‘steps’ are not necessarily equal within any scale. As with the Diatonic scale, there can be half-steps in amongst full-steps. And it is the placing of those steps that determines the Diatonic scale.

Let’s look closer at what a diatonic scale is

what a diatonic scale

It is a scale that has seven notes, hence its alternative name a ’heptatonic’ scale. They have a fixed format that consists of two half-step or semitone intervals and five whole step or tone intervals.

The format is fixed, but the placement of where the tones and semitones are placed can vary, as long as there are two semitone and five-tone intervals. A good example of a Diatonic scale is if you start at C and play all the white notes on your piano.

Is there just one Diatonic Scale?

To make it really fun, there are lots. Both major and minor. In fact, all major and minor scales are Diatonic. And in the minor keys, this applies to both melodic and harmonic forms. Notes that do not belong in the key, which are played anyway, are referred to as chromatic.

This has not always been the case in musical theory. The earliest written music discovered was from Iraq in about 1400 BC. As far as can be ascertained from the tablets found, they used a Diatonic scale.


From the Baroque period of Bach, musical notation became more complex, and more so during the Classical and Romantic periods. That is until the latter part of the 19th century.

Up to that point, music was usually composed not on Chromatic scales but on Diatonic major and minor scales. Chromatic notes were used, of course, but only in passing.

Let’s look at these scales more closely…

The Diatonic Major Scale

The Diatonic Major Scale

This is the most recognizable. We have already mentioned that starting on C and playing all the white notes will give you a Major Diatonic scale. The half steps (semitones) are separated by two and three whole steps ( full tones). That is the sequence that will tell you it is a diatonic scale.

From there, you can apply that sequence and start anywhere. As long as you keep the exact order of steps and half steps, you will have played a Major scale that is Diatonic.

The Minor Scale

Every major scale has its associated (or relative) minor scale. They may have sequences for the notes that are different. But the distance between the half steps is still three full steps.

There is a potential issue here and something I’ve noticed. If you are playing piano, then you quite often start with a key of C. That is the easiest to play. The piano seems to be much more geared up for major than minor keys.

Guitar vs. Piano

Guitar vs. Piano

But if you are on a guitar, it seems to be different. The guitar seems to be more “minor key friendly.”

If you are familiar with the Pentatonic scale, then you will recognize something. The Diatonic minor scale is the same as the Pentatonic but with two added notes – the second and the sixth. On the guitar, an easy pattern.

Most piano teachers seem to start students off in the Key of C. Understandable, Diatonic ‘C’ is just the white notes. If I were teaching guitar, I would start them off not in ‘C’ but in ‘A minor.’ The same except scale except that it starts on an ‘A’ note instead of a ‘C.’ ‘A minor’ being the associated minor scale of ‘C major.’

The Musical Modes

The modes are different scales applicable to a major scale. However, they each have a different set of characteristics. Each mode will commence on the major scale on a different degree.

There are seven degrees, each with a rather elaborate Greek name. They are the…

Ionian mode (mode 1), Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian (mode 7).

Each mode commences on a different note within the scale. Thus it has a different tonic note. Nevertheless, they are all Diatonic scales with just the sequence of the notes changed. The sequence of the structure of half steps and whole steps, though, remains the same.

You can therefore start on any degree, note, and play the Diatonic sequence to achieve your scale.

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You might also enjoy my in-depth look at the Best Guitar Brands on the market.

Diatonic Scales – Final Thoughts – Learning the theory is not enough

It isn’t. You need to learn it… then understand it and then apply it. It is something that, for some, will be complex, but it is worth persevering.

There are plenty of aids to help you get to grips with the Diatonic scale as well as other music theory. So, here are some good options…

Diatonic Major And Minor Scales Paperback

Piano Lessons and Music Theory Bundle

Music Theory: How to Understand and Learn Music for Guitar, Piano, and Other Musical Instruments

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About Corey Hoffman

Corey is a multi-instrumentalist who has played in numerous bands over the years, some good, some not so good. He has also written countless songs and recorded five albums in professional studios across America. Today he is a hobby musician but still loves the guitar after over 15 years of playing.

He considers his writing as a way to share what he has learned over the decades with younger generations ad always can't wait to get his hands on the latest gear.

He lives just outside New York with his wife Barbara and their two German Shepherds, Ziggy and Iggy.

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