Thanks to this answer here, I now know the commonly accepted definition of a scale.

However, from my experience, not all scales feel instinctive. For instance, I think major and minor scales feel more instinctive than chromatic ones. This is actually an interesting distinction because I personally prefer major scales to minor ones, yet I feel they are both very instinctive. I also feel that microtonal scales are less instinctive than chromatic ones.

This answer seems to touch on this a bit. But that particular thread is more about "why seven notes in the major/minor scale?" as opposed to "can we rank scales by how". For instance, if microtonal scales were equally pleasing as the normal major scale, then that answer wouldn't make sense if I understand it correctly. So I think it might be possible to rank scales by how instinctive or natural or pleasing they are. I will use these terms interchangeably unless someone convinces me otherwise.

My Question: What studies have been done to measure the instinctiveness of scales?

I cannot provide a definition of instinctive at the moment, but I would argue the second answer cited in my question has something close to what I am thinking of.

  • Do you define "instinctiveness" as sounding "good/right"? (Assuming you are basing this off of the second answer you have cited) Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 5:48
  • Sure. I tried to find something to provide a definition, but I admit the answer I provided, at least for me, isn't a very strong definition. Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 6:04
  • OK, an interesting question. I wonder what methods could be used to measure this. Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 6:08
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    I've forced myself to learn diminished scales, whole tone scales and other scale patterns, e.g. nine-note scales like this: C C# D# E F G G# A B When I started practising them they felt really awkward and unfamiliar, but this has gone away with practice. So the distinction I'd make is between familiar (i.e. practised) and unfamiliar, rather than with instinctive and non-instinctive. Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 12:02
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    While this is an interesting question, it is probably not good here, as there is probably no scale that is more instinctive to everyone - it is entirely down to culture and upbringing. I'll not close just now, will watch the question and see if it needs it
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 15:51

3 Answers 3


Nurture/nature. I feel that because in the Western world, most of what we listen to is major or minor, over time we've accepted this - it's become 'instinctive'. It would be different if one had listened to, say, Indian music for a long time. Then that would seem 'instinctive'. It's far more nurture than nature, if a loose definition of 'instinctive' is 'natural'. 400, 500 years ago, I doubt whether the stuff we now listen to would have been deemed 'instinctive'.

  • Do you have any references with scientific research to support this point of view? More specifically, if no scales are innate / instinctive, fine. But what research that has proven this? I am not for or against this hypothesis. I just want evidence. Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 19:16
  • There is a vast amount of practical evidence "out there" that scales are not innate, if you don't restrict yourself to western music and 12-tone equal temperament tuning. Even in western music, 12TET was little more than a theoretical idea for most of the past 1000 years (i.e. the time-span where there are written records that can be interpreted reasonably unambiguously, as well as the evidence from historical instruments)
    – user19146
    Commented Aug 16, 2015 at 0:36

Back in the early days of Church canon, the third was a decidedly "outside" note. It occurred here and there, but it was by no means afforded the status we give it today. It didn't sound "instinctive."

The only sounds/tones that are "instinctive" are the species danger sounds: those sounds that alert us that something higher than us on the food chain is nearby; those sounds that alert us that large rocks are in motion on the hillside above us; those sounds that alert us that danger is near.

Nothing about the pleasantness or goodness/correctness of musical scales is "instictive." It's all learned. Bifurcated constructs such as consonance/dissonance are learned.

This is one of the major reasons why a "universal" theory of music has not emerged, despite the intense efforts over hundreds of years of a lot of brilliant musicians and philosophers to try to produce one.

  • Absolutely! The blue notes were unacceptable even 100 years ago. Including the Devil's interval - b5. Now, we think they're great!
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 15:54
  • Unacceptable to whom?
    – slim
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 17:20
  • Don't think many composers used the intervals, can't find examples of their use. Masters of the king's musik wouldn't dare.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 14, 2015 at 19:31
  • They went out of fashion for a while, but J S Bach wasn't scared of the devil. Look at the end of BVW 715 - allegedly one of the causes of the authorities at Arnstadt complaining of his "having hitherto made many curious variations in the chorales and mingled many strange notes in them, with the result that the congregation has been confused". Half a dozen consecutive chords with tritones near the end - and plenty of other "strange notes" besides.
    – user19146
    Commented Aug 16, 2015 at 1:05
  • The (lack of) use of the third in the early days of the Church was probably caused by an arbitrary decision by the Powers That Be, who decreed that "the interval of a third shall be two whole tones", i.e., a frequency ratio of 81:64 compared with a "pure" third of 5:4 or 80:64. That is horribly sharp to be useful harmonically, even to modern western ears which have learned to think that equal-temperament thirds (about 80.6 : 64) are "in tune".
    – user19146
    Commented Aug 16, 2015 at 1:18

Certain interval patterns do turn up in scale repositories more often than others; easy ones are perfect fifths, though as others have pointed out, this may be due to cultural training on what is appropriate, not instinct. A full analysis might start with the scale archive at:


(though note some of those are constructed or academic scales, so you'd need to filter for the "cultural" ones) and then plot which intervals turn up the most often.

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