I know that every major and minor scale can be thought of as the notes of a C diatonic with specific sharp and flat modifications. This way of thinking works well for simple keys like G, D, A, F, etc. but for me it kind of falls apart with keys that really far from C on the circle of fourths, like Db, Gb, etc. For those I just end up memorizing which notes are in the scales and thinking of the chromatic scale relative to the key sort of as a group of 12 equally important notes. This also makes it easier because it avoids the whole switch at like C# major to Gb major and having to change back and forth from sharps to flats.

Is there any reason not to think like this? Do the notes of C diatonic always have to have special preference in our playing? I'm specifically asking from a jazz perspective, but all thoughts are welcome.

  • 3
    I can't see any value in "thinking in terms of C diatonic plus some sharp and flat modifications" at all. It doesn't tell you anything useful about harmony or voice-leading in the key of the actual music. I suppose it might be useful to an absolute beginner to think of the keys of F or G as "C but with one note changed" - but the danger is that it permanently traps the beginner at the stage of "reading and naming individual notes one at a time" rather than thinking in terms of bigger "chunks" of musical information, and keeps them at the "beginner" stage for ever.
    – user19146
    Jun 3, 2017 at 22:40

3 Answers 3


Everyone processes information differently, so you have to do what works for you. When I play trumpet, every note to me is a fingering, whether 2 & 3 is Eb or D# doesn't even cross my mind. I've practiced every scale so much that the muscle memory is far more important than the mental memory of how the scale is constructed.

That being said, a decent jazz musician ought to be able to transpose in his head. For example, you may need to be able to play a saxophone part when only a piano score is available. Also, you need to know your scales and how they function in order to improvise well. In those cases, I'm not sure whether your approach will hinder or help.

You can certainly try your method, but if you have trouble transposing or improvising, consider trying to work it out the traditional way.

  • I agree with John. I will add on his answer regarding transposition: I do like John. But I also remember finger sequence for all compositions. A simple example: the I chord in C is C-E-G. The fingering is 1-3-5. I can then find all I chords in all scales... if I know them instinctively!! You can then apply that to all that you learn, play or transpose. Playing simple Bach pieces will highlight that.
    – user33232
    Jun 4, 2017 at 8:30
  • I also play the trumpet and this is exactly how I play scales. When I'm playing (similarly for the piano), I don't think of the C diatonic equivalent and then add the accidental. For example: an Ab in the Eb scale is simply an Ab, not an A from the C scale that has been flattened.
    – Ben Hughes
    Jun 4, 2017 at 12:35

It seems completely useless to me to think in terms of "C diatonic with specific sharp and flat modifications" with regard to any modes not using C as a tonic. That sounds like approaching music from the angle of the keys of a particular instrument rather than notes. Our notation system is based on the C major scale, sure. That's like a computer keyboard being based on the "qwerty" arrangement minimizing type levers of mechanical typewriters sticking together.

It's still not a basis for understanding poetry, even though poetry is written on such keyboards.

I play various instruments, like violin and chromatic button accordion, and you work in the relative scales musically in either. While I have little experience with a piano keyboard, I would consider it awfully strange to think of musical material in terms of "C major with modifications" rather than a particular tonic and scale/mode.

The execution might be viewed through the lens of the exercised mechanics (and the various levers will be subjected to according amounts of wear) but I would consider it surprising if a typical player would have much to gain from this view.


Our system of naming notes forces the sort of thinking you describe to a certain extent. But try to develop away from it - let every key and scale have its own identity. Quite soon you won't be spelling out the note names consciously, any more than you spell out the individual letters while reading this.

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    I don't think the system is to blame for issues like this and in fact when one understands the system the relationship between sets of notes and keys becomes clear and is extremely useful when picking apart something. The issue is more that we don't treat all keys as equals. Gb may seems like a scary key to a beginner because they aren't the strongest readers, but depending on the instrument it may be easier to play in then a key like C.
    – Dom
    Jun 4, 2017 at 3:17

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