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Pentatonic, hexatonic, heptatonic, octatonic... what is a 12 tone scale called?

This seems like a dumb question. I know it's just called the chromatic scale, but isn't there a ______-tonic name?

I thought maybe dodeca-tonic. Dodecaphonic means something else, 12-tone composition.

I see some Google results for either dodecaphonic scale or duodecatonic scale. The latter points to a lot of Chinese mysticism pages.

Is there a generally accepted term?

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    What's wrong with dodecatonic? if you're going to go Greek, that is the word. Wikipedia uses the term in several articles, but the links point to the "chromatic scale" page, so they consider it a synonym. Apr 24, 2019 at 21:55
  • Nothing wrong with it necessarily, But that chromatic scale page doesn't actually use the term. The pages pointing to it do. That kind of spotty usage is what makes me unsure, so I thought I would ask the Music Practice & Theory mind hive. Apr 24, 2019 at 22:08
  • I think the reason that that term is so uncommon compared to, say, hexatonic or octatonic, is that every dodecatonic scale in 12-TET EDO is the chromatic scale.
    – user45266
    Apr 24, 2019 at 22:13
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    Chromatic means non-diatonic, so I see chromatic scale in itself as a misnomer! Some of its notes will be diatonic, surely? 'Dodecatonic' seems to be apposite. And, just like scientists and mathematicians, we need big words that have exact meanings... Just like '12 tone scale'?
    – Tim
    Apr 25, 2019 at 7:11
  • I’ve only seen “dodecatonic” used with any regularity. Apr 25, 2019 at 11:39

3 Answers 3

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The term "Dodecatonic" is most commonly used to describe a 12-tone scale. This naming is consistent with "dodecagon" (a 12-sided figure) as well as a "dodecahedron" (a 12-faced three dimensional shape).

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Dodecatonic would seem to fit, but since we can already refer to it as the chromatic scale, there seems little point.

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  • For non-12-EDO tunings/scales, can chromatic refer to the whole set of notes? E.g. every single note in 19-EDO.
    – awe lotta
    Jul 4, 2020 at 2:31
  • Good question, but I suspect that 100 out 100 musicians would interpret chromatic scale as meaning all 12 piano notes. Jul 5, 2020 at 6:14
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You seem a bit unclear with the Greek language.

Dodecaphonic comes from the Greek words Δώδεκα (dodeca = twelve) and φώνος (phonos = phone* as in phonetics, not as in telephone)

Dodecatonic comes from the Greek words Δώδεκα (as above) and τόνος (tonos = tone)

Dodecaphonic means something else, 12-tone composition.

Yes, but not necessarily. As you see above, I explained what it means exactly. When people refer to the 12-tone composition, they usually use words such as twelve-tone serialism, twelve-note composition, twelve-tone technique etc. You can take a look at Wikipedia to see some other names as well.

But the difference between the 12-tone serialism and the 12-note scale is that, the scale is an ascending (and then descending) collection of pitches, whereas serialism is not necessarily in an ascending (or descending) order.

So basically, if you want to call the 12 note equal tempered scale anything else besides chromatic, either of these words are linguistically correct. For most people though, the term chromatic scale would be the most commonly known.

But if you wanna go a different way, as in pentatonic, hexatonic etc, you can choose dodecatonic, so as to be consistent.

Not exactly thought in a scale per se, Nicolas Slonimsky in his book Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, calls the division of the octave in twelve equal parts a Semitone Progression.

*a phone is any distinct speech sound or gesture, as per the Wikipedia article.

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  • How is the "phon" in telephone and phonetics different? Googling the etymology suggests that phonos comes from Greek.
    – awe lotta
    Jul 5, 2020 at 13:28

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