If we take out the sharps and flats, I'm wondering if all scales need to be in alphabetical order in terms of their letters: A,B,C,D,E,F,G where 'A' comes after 'G'.
no repeating notes: A,A#,B,C,D,E, etc.
no skipping notes: A,C,D,E,etc.
no combining flats and sharps: A,B♭,C#,etc.
Therefore the scales are always in alphabetical order and each note is different. (?)

So the scale of C minor:
C, D, E♭, F, G, A♭, B♭
The scale of F# major:
F#, G#, A#, B, C#, D#, and E#

So if we don't look at the flats then the scales satisfy the above conditions. Is this true for all scales/modes in music? I'm guessing this is some kind of agreed upon convention to make things easier to memorize because it's just alphabetical order at that point. So the only thing we have to memorize is how many sharps or flats are in each scale.

  • Is your question about distinguishing 'scale' from 'mode' or 'key'? Scale like tonleiter (which I understand means 'sound ladder' in German) so a step-wise line versus mode/key an unordered set of pitches? Apr 3, 2019 at 21:18
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    I vtc as the question is based on a false premise, the way it's worded at the moment.
    – Tim
    Apr 3, 2019 at 21:56
  • 1
    @Tim what's the issue I can edit it
    – user34288
    Apr 3, 2019 at 21:56
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    You state that every scale has consecutive letter names. That's not a fact.No repeating notes. Sometimes necessary. No mixed #/b. Look at harmonic minors. There are so many premises the question is based on that don't ring true, that I had to vtc. My answer covers some points.
    – Tim
    Apr 3, 2019 at 22:03
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    Also keep in mind that note "letters" can be different between countries; for example, multiple European countries use H/B instead of B/Bb. This can ruin the alphabetical order.
    – molnarm
    Apr 4, 2019 at 9:59

8 Answers 8


Yes, in traditional Western music theory, but there are a lot of scales/modes outside of traditional Western theory that don't follow this convention.

For instance, the pentatonic, diminished, and whole-tone scales skip certain letters or have multiple notes on some letters.


This is not always the case but would be the case for the most commonly used scales, such as major, minor, and all the standard modes. However, we can quickly find common examples of scales that skip notes, such as a pentatonic scale, where there are only 5 notes, so it wouldn't be possible to use all 7 unique letter names. The whole tone scale only has six notes, so that will also be missing a note. There are also octatonic scales, which have 8 notes, and therefore require repeating a letter name. These octatonic scales also require the use of both sharps and flats a lot times. Then we have the case of the Harmonic and Melodic Minor scales, where you can end up with mixed sharps and flats. We could also consider the chromatic scale but that tends not to be considered in these types of conversations.

So generally speaking, if you are learning or teaching scales, it's good to start with the major and minor scale and introduce their modes. These will all follow the rules you suggested. Eventually, you learn/teach that this is not entirely the case and learn the exceptions. Music theory is very much like this, where you learn a general concept, sometimes thinking of it as a rule, then you learn how that concept or rule is not always accurate or applicable.

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    Also, you don't necessarily have to list the notes in alphabetical order, it just makes it a whole lot easier to conceptualize. Apr 3, 2019 at 20:13
  • I would say that a scale does need to be a series of notes in alphabetical order, because the term "scale" literally means "ladder", you go from one step to the next which is similar to the alphabetical order of notes. If you break that order the term "scale" doesn't really apply. Apr 3, 2019 at 23:10
  • @LarsPeterSchultz I suppose that's true. I'd suggest that in a less formal sense you could think of a scale without thinking of the notes all in order. Apr 4, 2019 at 16:05

As said many times, a scale is simply a set of notes played in order. Obviously with majors and minors, the plan works. But what about others? pentatonics won't fit that criterion, and certainly chromatic scales just can't.

But if possible, then yes. If only to make writing them out make more sense and be simpler. But something like a blues scale will have to have one repeated letter name. And diminished will be blighted in the same manner.


The word "scale" literally means "ladder" or "climb" - it's from the Latin word scala. So the notes are always going to be in order, and since we use an alphabet for the names of pitches, a scale must have the notes in alphabetical order.

But you're mistaken on the other details:

no repeating notes: A,A#,B,C,D,E, etc.

Scales can have more than one of a letter. The blues scale, the chromatic scale, the diminished scale (in either WH or HW form) are just a few examples.

no skipping notes: A,C,D,E,etc.

Scales can skip letters. Pentatonic scales are common, and in either the major or minor form they'll skip two letters.

The scales that do conform to no repeated or skipped notes are diatonic scales, which literally means "through the tones". Some theorists put additional restrictions on what constitutes a diatonic scale, but only one of each letter is a feature under any definition of diatonic.

no combining flats and sharps: A,B♭,C#,etc.

Some scales do combine flats and sharps. The D harmonic minor is a perfect example: it has both Bb and C#.

Your definitions work for the major scales and their related modes, but they don't work for all the minor scales/modes, and they won't work for any of the other dozens of scales used in music.

  • Not a criticism of a good answer, but the para. that starts 'scales can skip notes' might be more accurate reading 'skip two of the letters. It could read as there's a gap of two letters.
    – Tim
    Apr 4, 2019 at 6:44
  • Right you are. I'll edit.
    – Tom Serb
    Apr 4, 2019 at 10:57

What you say is entirely true of how major and minor scales (and the scales in the other standard modes) are notated. It is not true of all scales, though, as several of the other answers have detailed. As an additional wrinkle, the accidentals in harmonic and melodic minor scales are sometimes double sharps, for example D# minor. This is why D# minor is usually written as Eb minor (not in music, where you'll see both, but in scales), since in Eb minor the accidental is a natural (there are two of them in the melodic minor).

  • Even the humble harmonic minor can mix # and b.
    – Tim
    Apr 4, 2019 at 10:41

Mode is grouped with key. Both being sets of tones in no particular order. A scale is playing a set of tones in ascending or descending pitch order. Don't get hung up on tone naming and ordering by the tone names like alphabetizing the letters. I think the important thing is the scale is ordered by ascending or descending pitch.

Regarding scale/mode/key. I can play in a mode or key without playing scales. Mode/key is just the set. scale means the set ordered asc/desc.


For diatonic major and minor scales, A B C D E F G will always be the (ascending) order, without regard to key signature or numbers of sharps and flats (or steps).

In tertiary chords, alphabetical order will always be A C E G B D F A (skipping ever other letter).

It follows that diatonic seventh chords from major or minor scales (without regard to any other factor) will always be these seven combinations: C E G B; D F A C; E G B D; F A C E; G B D F; A C E G; B D F A.

1 3 5 7 in any diatonic seventh chord from a major or minor scale always refers to letters of the alphabet. For example:

       1   3   5   7     1   3   5   7       1   3   5   7        
       A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C D E F G A

1 3 5 7, apart from any other consideration, always maps to a letter (not to steps, sharps, flats, major or minor).

Alphabetical order will always remain alphabetical order, even in cases of scales where letters are subtracted (A B C D E G) or doubled (A, A#).

With alphabetical logic in mind, it becomes relatively easy to apply other information (major 7, minor 7, half-diminished 7, dominant 7, etc.).

For example, if all you know about a chord is the letter (root) and that it's a 7, you know what letters are involved. A Cmaj7 is going to involve C E G B, a C7 is going to involve C E G Bb, etc. (For that matter, a C#min7 will be C# E G# B). But the C E G B letter names and alphabetical order will be a constant.

I wish I had recognized the logic of alphabetical order (forward and reverse) before anything else at the start. Unfortunately, this simple logic is seldom discussed before steps, accidentals, major, minor, diminished, etc. and gets lost, making chord symbols and scales unnecessarily difficult and confusing. If one keeps the logic of the alphabet in mind, modifying the letter names with other information (sharps, flats) becomes relatively quick and easy.


The rules you mention apply for the most common heptatonic scales, but they don't necessarily apply to all scales.

I will give some counter exampes:

No repeating notes:

The pitch class {0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6} which in C will contain the notes C D♭ D E♭ E F G♭. In order to write this scale we are forced to have two D's and two E's. In any scale where we have more than three consecutive semitone steps, you will have duplication of letters.

Another exampe would be the Bebop Major scale, which in C will contain the notes C D E F G A♭ A B. Since this is an octatonic scale, it is impossible to cover it without repetition with only seven letters.

No skipping notes:

The same pitch class {0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6} which in C skips the letters A and B. In any scale where there is a step of more than 3 semitones a letter will be skipped.

Another more common example would be the Major Pentatonic scale, which in C contains the notes C D E G A. We skip the F and the B. In any scale that contains fewer than 7 notes it is impossible not to skip any of the letters.

No combining flats and sharps

Hungarian major in C, contains the notes C D♯ E F♯ G A B♭. There is no way of maintaining this rule without breaking the no duplication rule. The B♭ could be written as A♯, but then we have two A's. B♭ could also be written as C♭♭, but then we'd have two C's.

The rule that notes are in alphabetical order holds. There is no need ever having to write: C D♭ C♯♯. That can always be rewritten as C C# D.

The rule that all notes are different can even be further constrained. All notes in a scale have different pitches and are in ascending pitch order.