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Did you know that you can play an example of every type of diatonic scale just by using the white keys on the piano? Learn about diatonic scales, including major scales, natural minor scales, and modes.

Diatonic Scale Defined

The diatonic scales are the basic scales, or natural scales, in music. Another way to think of it is like this: Musical scales are like loaves of bread. White bread is the most basic kind of bread, and other ingredients are added to it to make it into other bread types, like cinnamon raisin.

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The ‘white bread’ of musical scales is the diatonic scale; it’s the scale to which other things are added in order to make other types of scales, such as chromatic scales.One way that diatonic scales are like white bread is that you can make them by playing just the white keys on the piano. Of course diatonic scales can be transposed to start on any note, which would mean using one or more black keys as long as the intervals in the scale or mode remain the same.

But, for simplicity here, we’re going to stick to the white notes for now. So, if you start at ‘C’ and play the white notes in order up to the next ‘C,’ you have just played a diatonic scale. In fact, you have played a C Major scale, and major scales are all diatonic.

There are two other types of scales that are also diatonic, which we’ll talk about in a minute: the natural minor scale and the modes.

Major Scales and Their Patterns

Almost everyone in the world knows the song ‘Do-Re-Mi’ from The Sound of Music. Go ahead and sing it in your head.

At the end of the song, the characters sing ‘Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do!’ That is a major scale.Every scale is made up of a pattern of repeating intervals. The major scale is made up of whole steps (equal to two half steps) and half steps in this order: whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half. You can start on any note you want to, and as long as you have those intervals in the right order, you have a major scale.

Natural Minor Scales and Their Patterns

Looking at the white keys on the piano again, you can also make what’s called a natural minor scale.

Every major scale has a related or relative natural minor scale associated with it, and you can find the start of it by going down one half step and one whole step from where the major scale begins. So, the C Major Scale has a relative natural minor scale that starts on ‘A.’If you start on ‘A’ and play the white notes in order up to the next ‘A,’ you have just played an A Natural Minor Scale. The intervals of a natural minor scale are: whole-half-whole-whole-half-whole-whole. Taking our Sound of Music example, it would be like singing ‘La-Ti-Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La.’

Modes

Another name for the A Natural Minor Scale is Aeolian mode.

The modes have their origins in ancient Greece. They are diatonic and can be formed by playing just the white notes on the keyboard. You get different modes by starting on a different white key and going up the keyboard until you hit the octave. For example, we have discussed the Aeolian mode, which goes from ‘A’ to ‘A,’ and the C Major Scale we talked about earlier is also called the Ionian mode. Here are some more:

  • Dorian mode goes from ‘D’ to ‘D.

    ‘ (whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half-whole)

  • Phrygian mode goes from ‘E’ to ‘E.’ (half-whole-whole-whole-half-whole-whole)
  • Lydian mode goes from ‘F’ to ‘F.’ (whole-whole-whole-half-whole-whole-half)
  • Mixolydian mode goes from ‘G’ to ‘G.’ (whole-whole-half-whole-whole-half-whole)

These modes can be transposed to start on any note as long as the intervals remain the same.

Lesson Summary

Just like bakers add ingredients to white bread to spice things up and make new kinds of bread, musicians add things to the diatonic scales to create new scales. The diatonic scales are the basic scales, or natural scales, and they can all be made by playing just the white keys on the piano. Which note you start on will determine which scale or mode you will make. All of these scales and modes can be transposed to start on any note as long as the intervals in the scale or mode remain the same.

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