As the title says, I’m looking for some information on the history of how the Major Mode (Scale,Key) was developed/designed. I already know a little bit, that is, I am not completely new to the topic, but I wanted to develop a better understanding of how we arrived at the Major Mode. Specifically the history, and the theory behind how it was developed/designed. I notice there is some nuance to it. Some theorist say it comes from the overtone series.


This link says it can be derived from the major chord and the major chords above and below it, which is also touched on by Schoenberg. I'm wondering if anyone knows of any other theorists discoveries, such as that of Ptolemy and Zarlino, about the Major Mode & Minor Mode. And to expand on that, about the development/design of chords (tetrachords, hexachords etc), & modes in general. I'd appreciate answers with references, so I can do further researching. I have a large collection of books, as I like to have all of the valuable information in print.

Thank you in advance!

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    Welcome! Requests for outside resources aren't covered here; the idea is that future users should be able to benefit from the same answers without hunting other stuff down. This question is one vote away from being closed, but I feel like you have a perfectly valid question with a bit of editing. I recommend downplaying the request for books and just ask for the info you need here, maybe including "I'd appreciate answers with references so I can research further." Sep 7, 2023 at 14:00
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    Also, heads up, like many things it wasn't really "designed" in one fell swoop with the goal of becoming what it is today; it evolved over time; e.g. Pythagoras was more interested in the tetrachord than in stacking them to make an 8-note scale. Sep 7, 2023 at 14:03
  • @AndyBonner Hey, oh ok thanks gotcha! I've edited my question, I hope that covers the issue! Also, I understand that it was developed, I just slightly used the wrong word. And lastly, interesting now I am wondering why he was more interested in the tetrachord than in stacking them. But thank you, I will look into that now as well!
    – Lecifer
    Sep 7, 2023 at 14:36
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    Meanwhile I wouldn't put much stock in the Wikipedia sentence describing the scale as "derived from the major chord." That may be a helpful way to think about it, but doesn't describe the order of historical events. "Chords" as a concept came centuries (lots of centuries!) later than tetrachords, scales, and modes. Sep 7, 2023 at 14:39
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    I've retracted my vtc, as now you're asking a question which deserves a good answer, rather than a list of writings on said subject.
    – Tim
    Sep 7, 2023 at 14:56

2 Answers 2


Check out Big Bangs - The story of five discoveries that changed musical history - by Howard Goodall, published by Vintage Books.

It's not specifically about how we arrived at modern major scales, but it's an excellent starting point.

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    Thanks I’ve read a little bit so far and I see what you mean about it being an excellent starting point!
    – Lecifer
    Sep 8, 2023 at 12:35

This paper has a good discussion of the development of major and minor keys. The major scale (as an ordering of notes) had been around much earlier.


Newly added references: Carl Dalhaus Studies on the Origin of Harmonic Tonality Joel Lester: Compositional theory in the eighteenth century

  • Thanks! I’m gonna read some more of this today
    – Lecifer
    Sep 8, 2023 at 12:36
  • Some more useful books. Carl Dalhaus Studies on the Origin of Harmonic Tonality.
    – ttw
    Sep 9, 2023 at 0:05

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