When reading/learning about scales, I find that all resources tend to treat the major scale as the foundation for everything that follows i.e. if major is 1 2 3 4 5 6 7, then the harmonic minor is 1 2 flat3 4 5 flat6 7.

However, I am doubtful that this is how the different scales originated, for example this wikipedia article suggests that the pentatonic scale was discovered in its own right independently of the major scale.

Could someone explain broadly when/how the different scales came into being (were 'discovered') and/or recommend a good resource that could explain this?

Thanks in advance

  • Thinking of the minor scale as a major scale with some altered notes is one way to think about it. the other way is to think of it as the same notes as it's relative major but just starting on a different note. Example A Minor and C Major have all the same notes, but C Major starts on C and A minor starts on A
    – b3ko
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 14:36
  • Even so, in this instance the relative minor is thought of as a mode of a major scale. So it's all very self-referential and I'm trying to understand which scale came first, and how the others came to be.
    – ALB
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 16:21
  • More likely is the natural minor being the main set of notes for a long time. Then along comes the same set, but based around the third note. That then is the major scale, major being most important, and it's become the datum point since that.
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 16:30
  • One problem with this question is that the scales will have existed long before they were named, or notes were named, etc. People were singing songs first, and music theoretical concepts arose later. Which constitutes "discovery" of a scale, use or theoretical description?
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 16:33

1 Answer 1


The is a huge topic with many resources available.

Keep in mind the are many music traditions from around the world and you may want to narrow your focus to a particular area. The history of scales in Japan will be different that the Europe.

For a European perspective you can dig into the history of Pythagorus leading to the scales (modes) of plainchant and the evolution of the major/minor system.

You many find this video interesting...

  • There is not much relationship if any between Pythagoras and plainchant modes; the Greek names seem to have been misused by medieval theorists.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 17:05
  • @phoog, my basic understanding is Pythagorean tuning will generate a diatonic scale and that notion of tuning is foundational in Western music. Like in this summary en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pythagorean_tuning. The Greek names were misused my medieval theorists but the foundational tuning goes back to ancient times. Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 17:22
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    I rather doubt that Pythagorean tuning was the basis of the diatonic scale; if it were, where did half steps come from? It strikes me as far more likely to be a theoretical explanation (approximation) that can be used to explain existing practice.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 17:36
  • @phoog, are you splitting hairs about ideas "attributed" to Pythagorus? Various sources about Pythagorean tuning talk about tetrachords of whole and half steps and generating a diatonic scale. They usually talk about the ideas being attributed to Pythagorus because he didn't write anything. Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 18:04
  • I'm not splitting hairs about attribution. Rather, I find it unlikely that melodic practice was based on the idea that note frequencies can be fixed by tuning around the circle of fifths in 3/2 ratios. The thirds are horribly out of tune if you do that. That doesn't matter if you have no harmony, but as soon as you add a drone, it does. I rather suspect that someone tuning (e.g.) an organistrum would pay more attention to whether notes sounded good against the drones, yielding just intervals.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 18:40

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