Pardon what I know is an embarrassing question - I am at the very basics of learning music theory.

If a scale such as C Major is an exact pattern of intervals, how can multiple songs be composed with it and still sound original? A quote from the Wikipedia article on it:

Twenty of Joseph Haydn's 104 symphonies are in C Major, making it his second most often used key, second only to D major.

Does that simply mean he steals parts of it using C Major, or he literally plays multiple instruments or octaves with the exact same melody? What are some tangible examples of two songs playing C Major and sounding different?

I feel like there is something very basic I am missing on the use of scales.


That "very basic" is was missing is that scales don't have to be in the given particular sequence, which is obvious now that I look at it and opens up my understanding to them.

I've read over 10 articles and tutorials on scales before posting this, and surprisingly, they all start out saying "this is a scale" but never why and what they do for you, which was very frustrating. I am all alone in learning all of this so don't have someone I can just ask these questions as they come up.

It's a little disparaging that SO is the only place I know I can get reliable answers, in, however I can't ask a question I honestly don't know without downvotes.

  • Look at 'Is Music Really Infinite' from a week or so ago.
    – Tim
    Jan 17, 2015 at 11:31
  • 1
    "Scales" and "keys" are entirely different things. You can have a scale within a key, but that's about as far as they relate.
    – user28
    Jan 17, 2015 at 15:41
  • Can the general abbreviation for "Stack Exchange" be "SE", or is it "SO"? I've seen both.
    – user45266
    Jun 29, 2018 at 22:51
  • SO is StackOverflow, which is Stack Exchange's roots. SE is Stack Exchange. Kind of a random place to ask, no?
    – dthree
    Jun 30, 2018 at 4:55

4 Answers 4


All a piece being in C major tells you is:

  • The home note (tonic) of a piece of music
  • What harmony and set of notes to expect

A piece being in C major does not tell you:

  • The time signature
  • The form of a piece
  • The length of a piece
  • The melody itself
  • The overall feel
  • The instrumentation of a piece
  • The overall harmony of a piece (chord progression)
  • The harmonic and rhythmic motifs (patterns)
  • If and how much it modulates
  • What cadences are being used

There are many more things that we can play with as composers, but this is a nice short list. As you can see what the key tells you is much, much less than what it doesn't tell you.

There are classical, jazz, pop, rock, blues, country, ... songs written in the key of C. Do they all sound the same and steal part from each other? No because being in the key of C only tells you a little bit about the song.

  • Also regular cadences vs irregular cadences and proper chord progressions vs unusual ones.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jan 17, 2015 at 19:02

Even if you are just using the tones from one scale, there is no limitation in which order the tones in the scale are used. Even if a piece is in C major, often other tones are brought in, further opening up the possibilities.

If you keep the rhythm the same, limit your composition to four tones, keep within one octave and the tones in the C major scale, you still have 7^4 = 2401 melodies. When these strict limitations are lifted, which they are in most music, there's a vast number of possibilities to explore.


Because you don't have to use all the notes, nor in the same order.

Suppose you have a very very simple song. Twinkle Twinkle.

How many notes does it have? The verse is like twelve bars, lets say each with a quarter note, which is 48 notes. Lets call it 50.

In a new song of that size in C major each note could be one of the seven notes in C.

That means there are 7x7x7 ... times seven 47 more times combinations of notes. 7 to the power of 50. A lot.


How can one draw different paintings when the human eye can distinguish just three primary colors?

How can one do a unique etching when using only black and white?

How can one write original poetry when there are just 26 letters in the alphabet?

Frankly, I have a bit of a problem understanding your problem under the premise that you actually have ever listened to music. Do you think that the notes of a scale may only be used in order?

Or what is it that makes you think that a given harmonic framework determines a piece to a degree where it cannot fundamentally differ from others?

  • @dthree This answer is in fact extremely helpful.
    – Divide1918
    Jun 11, 2021 at 12:50

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