I have many questions, but all related to the necessity (if any) of the diatonic scale and the consequences of this choice. First: what are the reasons behind the choice of the Western Music diatonic scale with its definite pattern of tones and half-tones?

Who made this choice and why? Was this choice a limiting one? Does it rule out a wealth of non-diatonic music? Were they some important composers and instrument builders who used different scales or just wrote music out of the chromatic scale?

What if the music I have in my mind is non-diatonic? I know I can constraint it into a diatonic melody, but it is not the same music and can be more or less beautiful than the original, depending on the tune. It looks to me I can still harmonize it by combining notes. Yes, the number of combinations mathematically explodes, but the constraints of (ease of) playability on a certain instrument reduces all possible choices quite a bit. And of course it is up to the artist to choose for the better.

Are there other music theories not based on the diatonic scale? Why some out-of-scale chords sometimes embellish a melody better than in-scale chords? Does this make music theory arbitrary and useless because it is based on a too restrictive premise like the diatonic scale?

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    Have a look at this question and maybe this question.
    – Andy
    Jul 21 '16 at 8:56
  • The diatonic scale (or family of scales) is popular in western culture, and central to things like the layout of the piano and the way pitches in standard notation are represented. However, though the diatonic scale is popular, there has been no overriding 'choice' made that applies to music in general; There exists a large body of music that can be seen as non-diatonic, and there are of course ways of thinking about music outside of analysing it diatonically. So while you ask Who made this choice? it might make this a more focused question if you could define who you think the 'who' is...
    – topo morto
    Jul 21 '16 at 19:33
  • I don't have a source for this answer but maybe, at least in Western music, the other Greek modes fell out of use when more complex rules of harmony were developed. It is quite difficult for me to write modal music with just triads without the music sounding like it is either major or minor. The modes sort of collapse into one or the other (except Locrian). If you use extensions it is possible to write modal music but this was not common in the time period we are talking about to my knowledge.
    – syntonicC
    Jul 24 '16 at 0:01
  • syntonicC-- the Greek modes were long gone by the time Western music (as you mean it here) began to coalesce. I think you meant Medieval modes. If you did, then the rest of your comment is correct.
    – L3B
    Feb 10 '17 at 15:22

The question is a little confused. First, many cultures evolved completely different scale systems and conceive of music quite differently. There have been many attempts to tie in the diatonic and polyphonic system that evolved in "Western" music to the harmonic series. It's an interesting exercise and much can be learned (I would recommend Paul Hindemith's "The Craft of Musical Composition, Vol. 1" as a starting point), but I think we can safely spare ourselves at this point from constricting our thought in this way. With the tools we presently have at our command (particularly computers), I don't see any reason to bother with such speculation.

  • so you mean we should depart from the tradition and just use frequencies freely in making music, particularly electronic music, because we have the computer now? But can a computer sound like matter? I do not think equations of waves are solvable so that we can perfectly synthetize a drum, for example. Jul 24 '16 at 8:25
  • This is nothing new. This kind of tradition in Western music fell to pieces during the first half of the 20th century. You are wrestling with a question that is extremely old and has been studied quite precisely and extensively. Again, other cultures have very different traditions. You can do almost anything with a computer. Sampling, synthesis, algorithmic composition, sophisticated analysis, etc. The major limiting factors of the medium are difficulty and price, and that could change dramatically over the next few decades as prices continue to plummet and useable AI is improved. Jul 24 '16 at 12:44
  • @AntonioBonifati There are lots of instruments that can use frequencies freely - fretless instruments, instruments with slides, the human voice - if computers don't appeal.
    – topo morto
    Jul 24 '16 at 20:48

Who made this choice of the diatonic scale? It probably goes back to primitive man chanting and beating drums. It is inculcated in our minds. It's hard to hum a tune that isn't diatonic.
Anyway, here's an interesting web site that seems to dig deeply into some of the questions you are asking. It's long and has many references that may take you further along in your quest. A lot to think about, but hopefully you will find some answers there.

The Creation of Musical Scales from a mathematic and acoustic point of view, Part II, by Thomas Váczy Hightower http://vaczy.dk/htm/scales2.htm

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    To me it is very simple to think up pleasant non-diatonic tunes. It is true I can "transpose" such tunes into the diatonic structure and I am forced to do so every time I play a diatonic instrument, but the music I imagine, whistle and hum is hardly perfectly diatonic. I do not think there is something special to me. It is more probable that diatonicism is a man-made restriction and it is difficult to stick to it when using our "natural" musical instruments. Jul 24 '16 at 8:30
  • You have answered your own question. The Western diatonic scale, at least the equal tempered version, is logical in providing tones that are more or less the kind of small-integer ratios you find in the natural harmonic series- but only more or less, and there are alternatives that are just as "natural". Jul 25 '16 at 17:23
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    Sorry, Gary, but you're just plain wrong. The diatonic scale as we know it didn't develop until the early Renaissance and has virtually nothing to do with 'primitive man.' Primitive cultures have at most pentatonic scales, and many of them have even simpler ones than that. What we call diatonicism grew out of the Medieval modes through a process of increasing popularity of the Ionian and Aeolian modes, and decreasing popularity of the others.
    – L3B
    Feb 10 '17 at 15:26
  • I apologize for the tone of my comment immediately above. I sound like I think I'm God or something and can't now edit to make it better. Please imagine that I said "In my opinion" several times, especially at the beginning. That's what I meant. Sorry I didn't say it that way.
    – L3B
    Feb 10 '17 at 16:08

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