If you have an instrument with only a few tones(say 9), so less than to make a whole chromatic octave, what would be a good tuning that would make the instrument able to play an as large as possible variation of 'emotions'

(with emotions I mean different scales that bring different-sounding tunes.For instance mayor is used most to play happy-sounding melodies, Minor for sad-sounding melodies, Minor-Harmonic to play something that sounds a little eastern, etc. However, since there's only a limited amount of tones, I would have to choose one of them. So I guess a combination would be best?)

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    Is this a purely theoretical question or you have an instrument in mind? It's hard to answer it, but I'll post my try at it shortly. – lfzawacki Jan 16 '12 at 12:15
  • I asked this question because of pure curiousity, but I first started thinking about this while trying to re-tune a small Kalimba(wich has 11 tones) of a friend. – Qqwy Jan 16 '12 at 17:23
  • Voting to close. This question is a purely theoretical musing that's obviously not based on any real problem (by the author's oqn admission). The answers it's invited are pure speculation. – Goodbye Stack Exchange Jan 16 '12 at 18:17
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    @neilfein I don't think that "purely theoretical musings" are necessarily off topic. Further, the author did provide a real problem by comment, and it would not have been difficult for others to come up with instruments in which a limited number of notes are available (since, actually, all acoustic instruments fit that category by virtue of having a range, and there are more specific examples such as Orff instruments usually intended for children). – Andrew Jan 16 '12 at 21:30
  • might be worth checking out the tones on a diatonic (as opposed to chromatic) harmonica – jon_darkstar Feb 13 '12 at 18:22

I think you could use a "modal" approach. And by this I mean to focus less on the key you're palying, e.g. A minor, and more on the notes and the mode they imply.

For example, assuming A is your lowest note, if you want the minor (aeolian) feeling you could go for the notes A, C and E present in the Am chord and add B, D and F to develop some melody. But then if you wanted to switch to C (ionian) or D (dorian) you'd soon fall short of notes in the higher register, and some wouldn't be present, like G for the C 5th.

The solution would be to switch to A major instead of to C major and thus imply a new scale made of A, B, C#, D, E which fits the extension of the instrument and can evoke this different feeling. The same could be said for the other modes.

A nice lesson about modes and the method I describe here can be seen here. It's played on guitar but the overall idea and demonstration serves this purpose well.


I assume that by "tones" you mean pitches, and that you're talking about an instrument that can only produce nine fixed pitches -- like a toy piano or glockenspiel.

The conventional approach is to have notes corresponding to the white notes on a piano; that is the notes of C major, choosing a range such that a whole octave of C major can be played, perhaps with some spare notes on either side.

This makes many conventional Western tunes possible to play, although with only nine notes, you're likely to run out of notes for lots of tunes. When this happens you can either give up, or play the problematic note an octave lower, or substitute some other note.

But with those notes, you are not restricted to the Ionian (major) scale. Play a scale starting on the D, and you're playing a Dorian scale. Start with E, and it's a Phrygian, and so on. Of course, you run out of keyboard earlier, but again you can go to the corresponding note an octave down.

Each of these modes has the "feel" or "emotions" you refer to.


I did actually encounter this as a real problem. I had a break-in and all of my instruments and gear were stolen. All, except the 'Third Man" zither.

To play my rock songs on a zither, I had to re-tune it to the key of the song. Fortunately, everything recent had been written using an Open-F guitar tuning, so the songs were all in C, C-minor, F, F-minor.

But one tricky song needed to flip from F-minor to F-dorian for a chromatic mediant. I tried devoting a string to it, but it was too confusing to play. So I had to leave the tuning-key hanging on the peg and quickly re-tune after striking the chord.

I'd suggest leaving it in C as a home base. And be prepared to quickly change tunings. 9 notes is not a lot, so you might even start with a pentatonic scale to get more range.


The pentatonic scale has always been a common scale choice when the number of notes is limited.

  • It offers the largest range for the fewest number of pitches
  • The scale allows you to play in multiple keys (most importantly, tonic and dominant)
  • All the notes of the tonic and dominant chords are present within the scale

Therefore, the pentatonic scale allows you to play both melodies with a wide range and support them harmonically.

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