Does a scale always have to start off with the note it is named after? For example, the Dm scale is defgab♭cd`. If I wanted to sing a song in D minor, would I have to start with the note D? Or could it be any note as long as it's within the scale? I'm getting some conflicting answers on reddit.

  • I have a strange feeling that more than 50% of pieces will have that root note as their first, and when there's an anacrucis, the root is the first in a full bar.
    – Tim
    Feb 17, 2021 at 7:25
  • You have to emphasize the root note, which means that you have to play it or fiths on resolution moments like the start of a bar or whatever moments in a rythm that the ear expects a resolution of dissonance. Feb 17, 2021 at 10:28

9 Answers 9


Does a scale always have to start off with the note it is named after?

A scale is a collection of notes with one of those notes designated as the 'home note'. When you're playing that scale in a learning context, like in a music exam, then you usually start on the note the scale is named after. When you're using the scale in real life music, you can start on any note.

For example, the dm scale is defgabd.

D natural minor is D, E, F, G, A, B♭, C, and back to D.

If I wanted to sing a song in D minor, would I have to start with the note D.


When you say that a song is "in D minor", D minor is the key, not the scale. In other words, though the notes in the D minor scale are likely to be important in the key of D minor, they aren't the only ones you can use. You can use any note, and you can start on any note.

This is especially true in minor keys in general, where the 6th and 7th can often be sharpened or not sharpened (compared to the natural minor).

Or could it be any note as long as it's within the scale?

In a real piece of music, you can use any note at all. Not just notes in the scale. Some notes are more likely to 'fit' though.

(from comment) So if a song was too high for me to sing, I can just sing it a little bit lower and still be in dm?

There are a couple of things you could do here. If there are just one or two notes that are too high for you, and you don't think changing those notes would ruin the song, you could sing a different note in those places. You often hear this when an aging star brings out one of their old hits that has some notes they can't hit any more! Of course you could change more than a couple of notes, but if you change the melody too much, it's not going to sound like the same song.

Or - you could transpose the whole piece down. If the piece is in D minor, you could transpose everything down two semitones to make it in C minor. All the notes will be the same relative to the other notes, but you'll mostly be using notes from C minor scales, and C will be your home note (and it will be the same for all instruments in the piece).


There are two different questions here:

  1. A song can be in the key of X but not necessary start on the named note; however, it is likely to end on that note. If not, the ending will tend to be ambiguous.

  2. But when you ask about starting a scale — treated purely as a scale, outside the context of a piece of music — on a different pitch, that's called a mode. For example, a C major scale played from D to D is called Dorian.

For more information on the difference between scales and keys: Difference between keys and scales?

For more information on modes: What is the difference between a mode and a scale?

  • 3
    2. No. A C major scale played from anything to anything is a C major scale. Happy Birthday sung in C has a range of G to G and uses most of the scale notes in between, but that does not make it mixolydian. It is still in C major.
    – Rosie F
    Feb 17, 2021 at 7:52
  • @RosieF I think you may have misunderstood what I wrote: a scale played from D to D, but using the same key signature as C major, is a D dorian scale. The point #2 refers to scales, not the range of pitches used in a song.
    – Aaron
    Feb 17, 2021 at 7:54
  • 3
    Only if D is the tonic is it D dorian.
    – Rosie F
    Feb 17, 2021 at 7:56
  • @RosieF - you're mistaken. A C major scale is only a C major scale going C>C. Using the exact same notes but starting on a different note, e.g. D>D cannot be the C major scale. It's called a mode - D Dorian. Of course D is the tonic of D Dorian - that's why it's called D. And Happy B'day isn't a scale !
    – Tim
    Feb 17, 2021 at 16:46
  • 2
    @Tim so if someone plays cdefgabcde, is that a C major scale with two extra notes on top, an E phrygian scale with two extra notes on the bottom, or a D dorian scale with one extra note at each end?
    – phoog
    Mar 27, 2022 at 9:33

The basic scale would start on the tonic.

But you can specify modes of a scale.

So, if you say just "D melodic minor scale" it would be understood as starting on D. If you say "fourth mode of D melodic minor" you would play the scale starting on the fourth degree, the G.

But, when people talk about modes of a scale it often reframes the musical context for chord root or a totally new tonality. For example the seventh mode of melodic minor is the altered scale used a lot in jazz over dominant chords. While that scale may be used over a dominant, it isn't necessarily the scale used for other chords. It's just isolated to the dominant.

On the other hand, a mode of a scale can be the scale used for an entire work. For example, the fifth mode of harmonic minor is the Freygish scale. It's used in songs like Hava Nagila.

But with something like this...

enter image description here

...it isn't really described as various modes or modes of a scale. You would just say it's in C major.

Naming modes and scale for each and every chord change is an academic jazz thing. Rock guitar has adopted the same practice from jazz teaching.

Also, be aware that a distinction is sometimes made between scale meaning a step-wise ascent or descent of all the tones of a key versus the unordered collection of tones in a key. The former is a specific kind of line to play, the latter is conceptual. The wording usually makes the meaning clear. You speak of playing scales to mean the former, but speaking of, for example, the fourth degree of a scale would mean the latter.

As far as what to do with a song melody there is no absolute rule. It's common to start with the tonic or a tone of the tonic chord, but you would start on any tone. And a song is not bound to stay in only one key/scale. It's normal to change the key in the course of a song.

  • Confusion is caused by the use of the word 'scale'. A scale in itself is simply a set of notes put into order - ascending/descending. I think it's confusing to say 'use this scale' over this chord - it sounds like you must play up/down a certain set of notes, in order. I've seen exam syllabi which state such as 'play C Ionian over this part, D Dorian over this, G Mixolydian over this - all in the same piece in the same key. Of course, it's the same 7 notes all through! Could have been explained (much) better!
    – Tim
    Mar 28, 2022 at 14:08
  • @Tim, "use this scale over this chord" and that syllabi example sounds straight out of the "chord/scale" system, and I agree it makes a confusing mess of tonality. Mar 28, 2022 at 19:16

You are asking more that one question.

"Does a scale always have to start off with the note it is named after?"

Yes, a D minor scale starting of F would be F major. Starting on E, it would be E locrean. The identity of the scale is determined by two factors (1) the intervals within it, e.g. Major is w-w-h-w-w-w-h, and (2) the starting note, e.g the aforementioned pattern of intervals starting on Db is Db Major and nothing else. There are related modes that you can generate by starting the scale on different notes, e.g. use the notes in C major but start on D and you have D Dorian which is in the key of C but given its own identity.

"If I wanted to sing a song in D minor, would I have to start with the note D?"

No, you do not have to start a song on the first note of the key of that song. There are plenty of examples of songs, etudes, and exercises, in the key of X that start on a note not equal to X. However, you may see an abundance of tunes that at least start on a chord tone, e.g. a song in C major starting on G, or E. But even this is not a rule of any kind.

  • 1
    A famous example of a song that doesn't start on the "tonic" (the note its key is named after) is "Happy Birthday". Feb 17, 2021 at 16:04
  • @MichaelSeifert - the root note only comes at the end of the first bar, making it quite 'unusual'.
    – Tim
    Feb 17, 2021 at 16:39
  • I does start on a chord tone of the I chord, namely the 5th, also the root of the V chord. Arrangements harmonize the pick up with V7.
    – user50691
    Feb 17, 2021 at 17:05

"Ma-" of Mary Had a Little Lamb doesn't start on the home note. It works its way down to the home note in the first three syllables, reaching the home note on "had". So no, it doesn't have to be the starting note.


If you wanted to sing a song in D minor you could start on whatever note you want. However, since it is in D minor, it should resolve to the D, but it doesn't have to start with it.

  • Wow thanks a lot. So if a song was too high for me to sing, I can just sing it a little bit lower and still be in dm? But wait, that wouldn't be possible because then I would have to change the whole piece right?
    – skyfox009
    Feb 16, 2021 at 21:20
  • 1
    @skyfox009 This answer is confusing: songs can start on any note, but a specific song always starts on the same note of the scale.
    – PiedPiper
    Feb 16, 2021 at 21:51
  • @skyfox009 - please refer to the answer for your previous question.
    – Tim
    Feb 17, 2021 at 7:31
  • This answer suggests that the last note of a song, rather than the first note, is better correlated with the tonic (such as D in case of D minor). Which is the case for many songs. But while the harmony is likely to resolve to the D minor chord, the melody may end not just on D, but also on other members of that chord: F, or perhaps A. And in exceptional cases even elsewhere, but then the harmony will be perceived as "unresolved": either as a provocative, abrupt, emotionally violent ending, or (more commonly) as a poorly composed or interrupted, unfinished song. Feb 19, 2021 at 10:00

The starting note of a song could be any note and it doesn't have to be within any scale. If a song is in a key, it doesn't have to be limited to any specific scale. Here is an example song in D minor. The melody starts with a G# note and ends on a C#.

Song in D minor

  • 1
    What makes this melody "in D minor"?
    – Džuris
    Feb 17, 2021 at 12:07
  • @Džuris The chords in the accompaniment. I said the song is in D minor. If you play that song and listen to it, it should be very obvious that it's in D minor. "In D minor" is not a scale, it means that the tonic note is D and home chord is D minor. You're supposed to listen to the music to know what key it's in, not try to calculate it. Record companies want to change it so that music is made for calculators, but you have to fight that nonsense. Feb 17, 2021 at 12:28
  • @Džuris You can place your song in D minor even if it has no melody notes at all. Play the chords Dm - Gm - A7 - Dm. End. It's in D minor and it has no melody notes. Zero. None. Feb 17, 2021 at 12:46

A scale is any set of notes that go up or down in by a consistent amount (cf https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scale). The most common scales everyone learns first are the those that start on the home note, and go up or down 8 notes in the key associated with that home note (properly called the "tonic"). But there are plenty of examples that do not. Chromatic scales for example do not conform to a standard key signature at all.

Your second question is more generally, what determines the key signature of a song, is it the opening note? The answer is no. Songs often finish on the home note, but not always. The starting note is even less indicative.

The key signature of a song is generally driven by the sharps and flats involved. Each key has a "signature" set of sharps or flats (cf https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Key_signature#Scales_with_sharp_key_signatures). Thus if your song has no sharps and flats, it is most likely in either C major or A minor. On the other hand if your song had just one sharp, F#, then there's an excellent chance it is in G major or maybe E minor. And so on. To complicate matters however, some songs (particularly jazz for example) throw in "incidental" sharps and flats, or even change key part way through.


Ok, one thing is not mentioned in the other answers i believe, so I am quickly add this:

  1. A song might very likely start with the tonic chord, where the bass note is the tonic (1st scale degree) or the note of the key.
  2. A simple melody might start on the first scale degree. It might not, but it could make it much more clearer. If you are talking about a tune that is just a melody, then this is different from a song mentioned in point 1. The song would have the root note at the first hit, the tune doesn't have to.
  3. A key and a scale are two different things as pointed out by others.

But I believe the major ambiguity stems from the fact that song very very often start with the root chord, or at least the bass note being the root of the key you're in. The melody doesn't have to start at that note, but can start there.

  • The melody doesn't have to start on the root of the chord, but further, as this answer implicitly acknowledges, the first chord doesn't have to be the tonic chord. The dominant chord is a fairly common alternative, for example.
    – phoog
    Apr 2 at 10:53

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