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What is a Diatonic Scale?

A diatonic scale has often been used in hymns.
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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2014
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The diatonic scale is a form of music scale that involves a progression through a range of tones. While the scale proper is often attributed to ancient Greece as the point of origin, there are also indications that the basic scale was known as far back as the period of Neanderthal man. The diatonic scale is often employed in many different types of music today, and continues to provide a basis for inspiration for new musical compositions as well as arrangements of old favorites.

One of the most common examples of a diatonic scale is known as the heptatonia prima. This scale has a set form that is referred to as a 7-35. This essentially is a seven note scale that is made up of five whole-tone steps with two half-tone steps placed at widely spaced intervals among the whole-tone steps. The pattern is repeated at the octave, giving the scale a sense of progression and unity.

The development of the modern keyboard was directly influenced by the diatonic scale. In fact, the arrangement of the black keys on the keyboard correspond to the arrangement of the basic diatonic scale, and tend to serve as a means of helping the musician relate to both the key and the tone.

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This basic 7-35 construct provided the basis for much of the European musical tradition during the medieval and Renaissance periods. The diatonic scale continued to serve as a major component in musical composition well into the 20th century. While often employed in religious music, such as compositions used as hymns in many faith traditions, the diatonic scale also has been found in jazz compositions, and even some forms of Country and Western music, and the rock and roll music of the middle to late 20th century.

While no longer the influence in musical composition that it once was, the diatonic scale continues to be found in many different forms of musical expression. While sometimes followed closely in order to create a specific effect, the diatonic scale can also sometimes be used as a starting point in the creation of a composition, with the composer adding to or taking away elements of the basic scale in order to create an original piece.

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