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We all know that when we say major or minor scale that we are referring to the diatonic major and minor scale.

But I recently found out that there's also a pentatonic major and minor scale.

I was wondering if the concept of major and minor applies to any type of scale? Does major and minor simply indicate that the the third scale degree is either a major or minor third interval away from the tonic?

Or is major and minor specific to some scales?

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The terms major pentatonic and minor pentatonic are only an european projection of two chinese pentatonic modes onto the major/minor system of tonality. You can see this as: Major pentatonics is a subset of the major scale, minor pentatonics a subset of the minor scale.

Major and minor are not only scales, but also systems of tonality. In that sense a scale could be called major or minor if it fits well into this tonal system.

Other than that major/minor for arbitrary scales is quite undefined. You could attribute a major or minor character to certain steps of a scale and thus define if a scale has rather a major or a minor character. But this is not at all universal definition.

By the way in that sense a Lydian scale would probably be more major than a major scale as the perfect 4th has arguably more minor character than the raised 4th.

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  • @MusicQuestions7 To amplify: I've seen sources that try to sort all modes into "major" or "minor" like music.stackexchange.com/q/82189/78419. I'm not sure this is particularly helpful or appropriate. And the simplest answer to your question is "No, most other scales don't have major/minor versions, but some do; there's a major and a minor blues scale." Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 14:55
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    Yes, Lydian is supermajor for sure. Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 15:02
  • @AndyBonner I think this is legitimate as long as you can draw some real use from this. Like ”this scale can be used well in a major-like context“.
    – Lazy
    Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 16:21
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It depends on how we define our terms. Me, I think the simplest and most useful definition would be that modes where the interval from the tonic (however it's perceived) to the third is a minor third are considered minor modes, and modes where the interval from the tonic to the third is a major third are considered major. This of course leaves many alternative scales out, but includes a large portion of popular music.

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Does major and minor simply indicate that the the third scale degree is either a major or minor third interval away from the tonic?

That might be a problematic way of defining it. After all, in "minor pentatonic," the third scale degree is a fourth above the first scale degree! But part of the point of modes is simply which note is the tonic. After all, all eight church modes use the same pitches. The difference is about which note is treated as "home base." So in C "major" pentatonic, the C is the note around which the material gravitates, while in "minor" pentatonic (or, as the Kodaly system calls it, "la-based" pentatonic), it's A. One could imagine modally ambiguous musical material that could make it hard to decide which one it is.

But people do in fact try to call some of these modes "major-ish" and "minor-ish," as in this table. And yes, this impulse is closer to what you described: "minor pentatonic" does in fact have a note that is a minor third above the tonic, even if it's not the third note in the scale. In my opinion, this isn't particularly helpful or even appropriate; these modes aren't major or minor, just similar in some ways. I don't see the value of grouping them, and that wasn't a way of thinking when they were created.

Now this gets confusing, but your question is a different matter. For this conversation, let's treat the word "scale" as meaning "a set of pitches." (It's not just that, but let's use that definition for now.) Meanwhile "mode" can talk about which of those pitches is the tonic. So the garden-variety major and minor are both "modes of the same scale" (all the church modes are, and these are just Ionian and Aeolian). And "major and minor pentatonic" are both modes of the same scale.

So, in theory, any scale can have modes, just by "centering" one note or another from its set. In practice, this often doesn't make sense. For example, the whole tone scale would sound the same no matter which note is the tonic (that's kind of its schtick), and the octatonic scale is similar. And many scales are closely tied to specific practices, like the "gypsy scale" and blues scales; creating modal "mutations" of them would be a fanciful departure from a very practical structure. So while you could derive all kinds of modes from all kinds of scales, it's not always an idea that makes sense, and it doesn't always make sense to apply the words "major" and "minor" to them.

That said, there are a few more where the labels are used. There's a "major" and "minor" blues scale, and there's mention of a "gypsy major".

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  • Thank you for your detailed reply. In my previous thread that you had linked I had a follow question, that I'd like to repost: So, from what I understand now, scales are a collection of pitch classes and also "blue prints" for melodies. Is that correct? I have no source or textbook. I'm just researching this topic to learn music theory and the purpose of descending scales is hard to understand for me. No resource I found so far actually explains the purpose of descending scales. It's always the general answer of scales being sets of pitch classes that sound good together. Commented Oct 11, 2023 at 19:09
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If the third of the scale is a major third, then it's a blah blah major something scale. If the third of the scale is a minor third, then ... etc. It's a cultural convention, not natural science.

An alternative explanation. If it sounds more majorish than minorish, then calling it a major scale is less misleading than calling it a minor scale.

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