background: I am an amateur guitarist. I was trained in Indian classical music as a kid. Most of what I know in music theory is from books or Google. So please feel free to correct me or tell me if I'm wrong.

One thing that always bothered me is how the major scale came to be. As an Indian classical music student I started out with Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa' which are analogous to the Western C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C' (Note that the default key for both is C). From what I can tell the two systems don't seem to have a common origin. So I have always wondered if the major scale will naturally appear in any musical system.

I always believed there has to be some mathematical reason as to how the major scale came to be. I have tried to derive it myself using the perfect interval as the first stepping stone, but I could never arrive at anything. Books and the web tell you of properties derived from the major scale, but not the other way around.

So I was wondering if anyone knows how the major scale came to be? Is it some natural mathematical conclusion to the way we perceive music or is it just an age old establishment? Is it really a coincidence that two culturally different musical systems have the same technical basis?

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    Did you read this and this? Their answers maybe does not answers your culturally related question exactly, but might be of help. – Ulf Åkerstedt Dec 27 '12 at 14:13
  • I'm surprised you didn't include G (Pa) – Dave Dec 27 '12 at 17:40
  • @Dave I meant the whole series. I edited the original question to avoid further confusion. – tinkerbeast Dec 28 '12 at 7:28
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    The book: The Harmonic Experience by W. A. Matthieu may be useful for answering your questions. – Dave Dec 28 '12 at 17:13

10 Answers 10


tl;dr The simple answer is "The major scale comes from the overtone series."

I don't know the history, which I suspect goes something like "the major scale is that way because people liked the sound of it." But I do know the mathematics, which may help to explain why people like the sound of it.

Let's start from first principles, many of which you probably already know. To begin with, sound is vibration. We perceive sound through the vibration of the eardrum and the tiny bones (the hammer, anvil, and stirrup) in our ears. Most commonly, we hear vibrations in the air, although when we speak, our own heads also vibrate, contributing to the sound we perceive as our own voices---this is why our voices sound different to ourselves than to other people and why most people don't like the recorded sound of their own voice.

So a note in its purest form is some vibration at some frequency, measured in Hertz (Hz). For example, by convention in the United States, orchestras tune to a pitch at 440 Hz (an A).

Now, when we say that a pitch has a certain frequency, like A is 440 Hz, that's mostly a theoretical simplification. Most sounds aren't composed of a single frequency. If you sing an A or play an A on a trumpet or a violin, the resulting sound is actually composed of multiple frequencies simultaneously---the fundamental frequency (the 440 Hz) and a series of related frequencies known as the overtone series. Which members of the overtone series are present, and in what proportions, determines the timbre (or tone quality) of the sound. It's what makes the voice sound different from the trumpet and the violin. So again, when we hear a sound, we are most often hearing a collage of related frequencies.

What is the overtone series? The frequencies that make up the overtone series are integer multiples of the fundamental frequency. In the case of A440, the overtone series includes 880 Hz, 1320 Hz, 1760 Hz, 2200 Hz, 2640 Hz, .... Taking octave equivalence into consideration, we can generate closely-related frequencies within an octave of 440 Hz:

  • A: 440 Hz
  • B: 440 * (9/8) = 495 Hz
  • C#: 440 * (5/4) = 550 Hz
  • D: 440 * (4/3) = 586.67 Hz
  • E: 440 * (3/2) = 660 Hz
  • F#: 440 * (5/3) = 733.33 Hz
  • G#: 440 * (15/8) = 825 Hz
  • A: 440 * 2 = 880 Hz

All of these frequencies are present in the overtone series, and so they occur naturally, to varying degrees, when you play an A. Contrast these frequencies with the frequencies for the major scale pitches in Equal Temperament:

  • A: 440 Hz
  • B: 494 Hz
  • C#: 554 Hz
  • D: 587 Hz
  • E: 659 Hz
  • F#: 740 Hz
  • G#: 831 Hz
  • A: 880 Hz

Pretty close, right? And in fact, Equal Temperament is a relatively recent compromise developed in response to issues like this. The point is: the notes of the major scale come from the naturally-occurring overtones present in sound.

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    "All of these frequencies are present in the overtone series"... Yes, but theoretically all pitches are present in the series, and in the A series a pitch closer to G-natural comes way before (and more strongly than) G-sharp. Your explanation doesn't account for this at all. @oliTUTilo 's explanation comes closest, but the reality is that it's as much a product of cultural evolution as the physics of sound. – tjb1982 May 11 '13 at 22:17
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    This answer is incorrect, for the reasons explained in my answer. – Ben Crowell Mar 21 '14 at 22:51
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    The harmonic series, while it explains consonance of intervals, doesn't fully explain the diatonic scale, as it contains a partially-flat seventh and a partially-sharp fourth. At a basic level, the only part of the harmonic series you need to generate a diatonic scale is the first three harmonics (fundamental, octave, and perfect fifth). The answers that describe the scale as a stack of fifths are much better. – Caleb Hines Feb 8 '16 at 17:39
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    This explanation could be used for any scale! It does not explain the major scale at all!! Imagine the major scale was A A# B C C# D. You would show the ratios of the overtone series, whatever they are, and then compare to equal temperament and say "See? Major scale is explained by overtones". It may explain some of the notes that are used in the major scale, but that's just a tiny part of it. – coconochao Mar 25 '19 at 21:28
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    @CalebHines the seventh in the overtone series is over- flat, and considerably so, not partially flat. – phoog Apr 26 '19 at 17:12

The major triad is closely linked to the overtone series series of a given fundamental note

  • Taking c as the root,
  • c' (the c one octave up) has a frequency 2x that of the root,
  • g' has a frequency 3x that of the root,
  • c'' has a frequency 4x that of the root,
  • e'' has a frequency 5x that of the root, and that our ears respond in a particular way to these kinds of frequencies that are related by simple integer multiples.

Another physiological feature is that we identify all notes whose frequency ratios are powers of 2 (2, 4, 8, 16...) as the same note -- it's widely reported that the music of all cultures identify the different octaves of a given tone as the same note. This also means that we can octave-reduce the notes indicated above to put them all into the same octave.

The next most basic relation is the fifth, which corresponds to a frequency ratio of 3x.

Usually, the 4th is identified as the note whose 5th is the tonic, note that the fifth above F is C. Thus the 4th is the inverse of the 5th.

The fifth of the fifth is D (the fifth of C is G, the fifth of G is D), so this note is obtained by simple compounding of a simple interval.

In principle, all of the notes can be generated by compounding fifths, yielding Pythagorean tuning.

However, most modern theories of tones take the major third, corresponding to a frequency ratio of 5x, as fundamental as well. Compounding fifths, thirds and their inverses (fourths and sixths) yields Just intonation.

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The cultural sources of the diatonic scales are prehistoric, and attempts to find their origins have included studies of ancient bone flutes. Diatonic scales, including the major mode, do occur in multiple cultures, but do not occur in all cultures. For example, Indonesian gamelan music uses scales called slendro and pelog, which are nothing like the major scale or any other diatonic scale. Triads and tonal harmony are much newer than diatonic scales, dating back to Renaissance Europe. In the common practice period (ca. 1600-1900) based on the European musical tradition, we have the major-minor system.

These facts suggest that we should be very skeptical about attempts to derive the major scale based on mathematical principles. It's one of a variety of musical tools that have been used at various times as parts of various techniques and musical cultures. In any attempt to explain the major scale based on the overtone series or the circle of fifths, we have the problem that the various forms of the minor scale don't really fit.

There are certainly reasons why musical techniques such as Gregorian chant, polyphony, and tonal harmony work better with a major scale than with an Indonesian pelog scale. These reasons do have mathematical origins. However, they can't explain the origin of the diatonic scale or what we now call the major mode, since those are much older.

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    It is also a fact that Western cultures and Indian cultures have interacted with each other before our first examples of written music. While there are vast differences between the two musical traditions, there are other parallels. The explanation could indeed be a shared origin. – amalgamate Dec 4 '14 at 17:36
  • How is the major mode much older than Gregorian chant? It does not seem to have existed before the renaissance, practically speaking, or the baroque, theoretically speaking. – phoog Apr 26 '19 at 17:16
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    Despite being more of a mathematician than a musician, I don't like to see the role of maths in music overstated. Why the major scale? Why do the Brits on the left but the Yanks on the right? Why do the US use feet and inches and most others use metres? In all cases, it is mostly just arbitrary factors throughout history. – badjohn Apr 26 '19 at 19:09

Arnold Shoenberg, in his Theory of Harmony, shows that the major diatonic scale is constituted by the major triads of the tonic, dominant and sub-dominant tones. For example, this means that the C major diatonic scale can be constructed with just the tones in the C major, G major, and F major chords.

He points out that the notes of a major triad are exactly the notes of the first three unique harmonics, indicating a possible source of the power of major triads. It has also been recognized as early as Pythagoras that tones whose frequencies lie approximately at small integer ratios sound "consonant" and pleasing when played simultaneously or soon after one another.

As to why such a revered scale should be based around the tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant, we can again take note of the harmonic series and Pythagoras. The dominant sits at a frequency ratio of 3/2 with respect to the tonic, taking after the second unique harmonic in the harmonic series based on the tonic. Relatedly, the tonic lies at a frequency ratio of 3/2 to the sub-dominant.

If you have access to a standard piano keyboard, try playing just the C (tonic), F (sub-dominant), and G (dominant) tones in various sequences and rhythms. Try comparing the affect of the tonic alongside various other pairs of tones (C, A and C#, for example). I've found that no other combination of just three tones better serves to instil the feeling of "home" in the note C.

Also, play the C major scale, one note at a time, up and down in a variety of rhythms. Since the major scale consists entirely of notes from the tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant major triads, try modifying the activity as follows: alongside each note of the scale, play a chord from either the C, F, or G major chords, choosing only a chord that possesses the note being played at the time. So you can play C with CEG, D with GBD, E with CEG, F with FAC, G with CEG, A with FAC, B with GBD, and finally C with CEG, for example. I find that playing alongside the chords feels like a very filled-in version of playing the lone scale. Try substituting the tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant major chords with other chords in the C major scale (or even chords from the chromatic scale), still only playing a chord when it possesses the tone currently being played in the scale. It seems like playing with the tonic, sub-dominant and dominant major triads form the most agreeable and representative expansion of the lone major scale than any other three chords (even though other combinations are nice and interesting).

In light of this, playing the diatonic scale in step-wise motion seems to have an effect of alternating between the "three areas" (tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant) of a key, providing harmonic contour of fundamental importance somewhat automatically.

As a brief indication of another important factor, note the inherent constitution of minor chords and their potential activity in the major scale. The second and third tones of the major scale can be viewed as the sub-dominant and dominant, respectively, of the sixth tone. Try the exercises again, but using the sixth tone as your tonic and minor chords in place of the major tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant chords (so playing the minor scale with respect to the sixth tone in our original major scale).

Those are some points that stand out in my mind as to how the major diatonic scale might be so important in music.

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  • This is the only correct answer. Any answer referring to the overtone series only is bs as that would yield something more like the mixolydian mode. – tjb1982 May 11 '13 at 22:09
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    This answer is incorrect. The diatonic scale dates back to prehistory, and attempts to find its origins have included studies of ancient bone flutes. The organization of harmony around tonic, dominant, and subdominant, began in the common practice period, i.e., starting around 1600. Therefore there's no way that the origin of the major scale can be explained by these triads and harmonic relationships. – Ben Crowell Mar 21 '14 at 22:33

It's quite easy to "construct" the major scale by adding perfect fifths (and adjusting octaves to keep the resulting frequencies close together). Start from C, and you get (in this order) G, D, A, E, H and F sharp, which is the entire G-major scale. (To get C major, you have to start from F instead.) Note that if you stop after five steps, you get a standard pentatonic scale.

Now, this scale has some nice practical properties - it fills the octave with a manageable number of frequencies (7), it contains just two different intervals, and those two are not too different from each other. (In practice, however, this is probably not how it was initially created - western tonal music is derived from earlier systems with fewer tones (four, five or six), and those were not constructible by piling up perfect fifths, but 'adjacent' notes (major or minor seconds). For instance, it was much more common to use C D E F G rather than C D E G A, so the "perfect interval" construction is probably a post-facto rationalization of a scale that practitioners had already found without mathematical considerations. I think it's nice that there is more than one explanation for something so fundamental as the tone repertoire that people whistle, hum and sing in.)

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I believe those that say it begins with using the 3:2 ratio are correct. Schoenberg is also correct, but a 7-note system already existed before the major scale was recognized, so his explanation starts in the "middle", so to speak. We call the 3:2 frequency ratio the frequency ratio for a 5th, but, of course, a scale or mode or system of pitches had to exist before anyone could call it a 5th, since this refers to the relationship of the two pitches within a scale (or mode or system).

By stacking 5th's and telescoping them down so that the pitches are within an octave, or, perhaps better, by alternating up a 5th, down a 4th, up a 5th, down a 4th, it's relatively easy to see why one would stop when they get to the 8th pitch, because it gives a note outside of the octave. When the note is brought within the octave, it results in a note very close to the starting note, and it creates a step-wise interval that doesn't exist within the first seven. Let me explain by an example:

Any frequency can be used to begin with, but it is easiest to think of the beginning note as the F in our modern system, because that will create the 7 natural notes (white keys on the piano). Proceeding up a 5th, down a 4th (or multiplying the frequency by 3/2, and then the next one by 3/4) results in the following: F C G D A E B. Lining these up from lowest to highest gives: F G A B C D E. We could cap it off with another F, which would come from multiplying the starting frequency by 2, which gives a note an octave higher. In fact, it gives us the reason for calling it octave, because it is the 8th note in the list. When the math is applied to the frequencies in this list, the intervals created between adjacent notes are in two sizes. Let's call them L (for large) and S (for small). This is instead of whole-step, half-step, which comes later. The pattern is LLLSLLS. Adding the next note above B in the first list, you get the note that we would call F#, but it is outside of the octave in the up a 5th, down a 4th scheme, and when brought into the octave, the F to F# interval, turns out to be neither the L or the S step interval. So, there is reason to stop at the note we call B.

Adding octave duplications of these 7 notes, extends the basic system. Eventually, the notes get named and additional notes, accidentals, get added. We have been using the names as we know them, but at one time, those names didn't exist yet. The medieval modes exist with in this extended system. The major 3rds FA, CE, and GB within this system were quite dissonant on most instruments because fast "beating" would occur between near coincidental harmonics. The frequency ratio of these major 3rds is 81:64. A much more consonant interval occurs if the ratio is 80:64 which reduces to 5:4. This is a ratio that occurs naturally in the overtone series. The desire to use this interval is what leads to the concept of temperament, which is a whole new topic. But for the current purpose, we can see that once the major 3rd is made more usable through temperament, the major triad gets "discovered" and then Schoenberg's theory for the foundation of the major scale takes over.

I would like to add that I have tried to keep the mathematics to a minimum here, but the math sure helps when trying to dig deeper into this topic, and the math required is mostly just arithmetic with fractions. The math will also help one to understand what is meant by "beating between near coincidental harmonics". The development theorized here is the Western Scale system. It seems reasonable to me that something similar could have occurred in India, but other paths were followed along the way to account for the many differences between the systems.

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Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni, Sa is the raga equivalent of the western Do re me fa so la te do.

Major scale has the same intervals as Shankarabharanam.
Minor Harmonic scale has the same intervals as Keeravani
Minor Melodic scale has the same intervals as Gourimanohari

But we have 12 versions of each scale! that would be like 12 Shankarabharanam ragas all staring on different notes. Each different Shankarabharanam would have its own Sa Re Ga

All of the western scales originated in India and were transfered either to the Agean, Anatolia and eventually North africa by the Roma people starting during the Greek_indian confluences 10 centrury BC. The west got them from Greece, Anatolia, Egypt and Arabia.

THey are ALL Indian scales. Look to the Indian and Arabic scholars for the ultimate origin of all western Music.


For a narrower Western view see Helmholtz (https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=2CiqYQXZjIYC&pg=PA15#v=onepage&q&f=false)

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The major triad of C is CEG (3rd, 4th, and 5th harmonics of C). C falls to F (perfect cadence). The major triad of F is FAC (3rd, 4th, and 5th harmonics of F). Now we have 4 notes--C,E,G,F,and A. G falls to C (perfect cadence). G's triad is G,B,and D. Now there are 7 notes: C,E,G,F,A,B,and D.

In summary, there is a family of notes associated with C (sort of like everyone has a home to go to, and everyone is a home to someone else). C falls to F, and G falls to C. This is the origin of the 7 note scale.

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If you played 2 notes that sound the most harmonious you'd choose notes that are octaves apart. These have a frequency ratio of 2:1 (or 4:1 or 8:1 etc.) but this doesn't get you very far in deriving a scale so the next "most pleasant" musical interval is when the notes are in the frequency ratio 3:2 - this will yield a G from a C. Most answers above have alluded to this and folk sometimes refer to this as a circle of fifths.

Starting from F you get the C maj scale and, if you carry on it progressively forms all the major scales in all the keys on a standard fixed-pitch instrument like a piano or guitar. I find this makes the major scale very special.

If you took the next most pleasing interval you'd choose 4:3 and this is a perfect 4th. You can get the same result as a perfect 5th but going down in pitch. This should be obvious to a few folk!

Forgive me. I'm a newbie and if i've repeated parts of other answers I'm sorry but I don't know of any other scale that is based on such simple ratios of frequencies.

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  • This doesn't quite work. The Major scale contains more dissonant intervals than 6:5 but not 6:5 itself, for example (e.g., C Major does not contain E flat). – user28 Oct 5 '14 at 14:08

The true answer is that it is an organisation of the first seven tones of a series dependent on a given quantity of separate tones that have the closest mathematical relation. For instance, the first two tones in the series are 2:3, whilst the first four are 2:3:4.5:6.75, and so on.

The first seven tones in this series are significant because they contain all the mathematical intervals present in the chromatic system (which is also justified, but I won’t go into it.)

If you were to attempt organising these tones into an ascending scale that has the least composite dissonance, the end result is the major scale. The simpler, consonant sound of this result/organisation causes many people to interpret tonal relations in terms of this scale (and its minor derivative).

PS: trying to justify it with the overtone series has resulted in a wonderous failure of mental gymnastics. Often the cause of this is simply because they share the basis in whole number ratios.

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