I read a dissertation in which the author describes the octatonic scale as 'equal interval chromatic'. I thought that the octatonic was a mixture of semitones and tones?

Moreover the dissertation is in relation to Rachmanioff's association of it with 'intensification, destabilisation and climax'.

  • In this case, chromatic may mean that the author doesn’t have a logical framework for reasoning about its use. Check Barry Harris on youtube, he seems to have frameworks for diminished scales. Jan 3, 2020 at 19:51
  • Why did you accept an answer so quickly? This question just became the Official Internet Truth on the subject of why ”the octatonic scale” (as if there was only one) is described as a chromatic scale. But I don’t really understand it. The major scale contains whole steps and half steps, so it is a combination of the chromatic scale and whole-tone scales, so should the major scale be described a chromatic scale? Jan 3, 2020 at 22:21
  • I accepted it because I made the mistake in the heading question of putting chromatic, whereas in the body of the question I put the full description: equal interval chromatic. Laurence answered the question by saying it was a mixture of the chromatic and whole tone scale which made sense to me. Moreso, yes the major scale does contain whole and half steps it is a asymmetrical scale= it could be Whole, whole, half (start of major scale).. Whereas the octatonic is half, whole or vice versa consistently and is a symmetrical scale Jan 3, 2020 at 22:36
  • Apologies for the confusion. I've changed the heading Jan 3, 2020 at 22:37

4 Answers 4


If the dissertation in question is the one linked to in guest's answer, "equal-interval" is the general term here, referring to structures that divide the octave equally. This tends to be especially applied to division of the octave into major thirds or minor thirds. (Equal division into seconds also produces both the standard chromatic scale, as well as the whole-tone scale, which is discussed periodically in the dissertation too.)

However, such divisions don't tend to be very useful by themselves -- they just produce static diminished or augmented chords. (Or a whole-tone scale by itself, which generally sounds pretty static harmonically.) Instead, a lot of times these notes (and others) are used to produce progressions around such division points within the octave.

One possible extension of equal division is to superimpose two cycles of equal division next to each other (as Michael Curtis describes). If one does this for augmented triads, one produces a hexatonic scale. If one does this with diminished seventh chords, one produces an octatonic scale. Hexatonic and octatonic scales can be used to produce progressions that move between the major/minor thirds that the "equal division" structures are originally based around. Hexatonic and octatonic scales also allow one to build simple major or minor triads within them, which isn't possible with a simple equal division of the octave by itself (again, just an augmented or diminished seventh chord).

Thus, hexatonic and octatonic scales can be used with standard major and minor triads (as well as more dissonant chords) to produce progressions that move chromatically across equal intervals (i.e., major or minor thirds). Hence equal interval chromatic (which is more about the type of progression possible than a description of the pure scale). This is opposed to normal functional chromaticism, which tends to be organized around fifth and fourth relationships with dominants (and secondary dominants) progressing to tonics and generally isn't organized around progressions of equal intervals.

EDIT: Also, if the dissertation linked is the one OP is discussing, I'm not sure where the term "equal-interval chromatic" is used to describe the octatonic scale. Rather, octatonic pitch collections are used in the dissertation at times as a basis for finding "equal-interval chromatic structures" (again, mostly based around progressions that involve symmetry by minor third intervals). If there's a place where OP sees a specific designation of "equal-interval chromatic" referring to the scale itself, it might be easier to interpret the question.

  • Thank you for this detailed answer. I’m trying my best to try and understand it. Do you know of any theory books that cover this level of music theory? Jan 4, 2020 at 23:13
  • 1
    Well, even though you're dealing with tonal music, the dissertation makes heavy use of notation based on some pitch-class set theory and post-tonal theory. I don't know what your level of theory knowledge is, but one of the clearest textbooks that covers some of that is Joseph Straus's Introduction to Post-Tonal Theory, which is the origin of the notation used in the dissertation to label octatonic pitch collections. If there's something unclear or that you need more explanation on in my answer, let me know: I'm happy to expand or give more details (or you can ask a separate question).
    – Athanasius
    Jan 5, 2020 at 1:59

I guess you are referring to this PhD thesis: https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/63739. Certainly the phrase "equal interval chromatic" occurs twice in the abstract, and once adjacent to the word "octatonic".

Anyone who can make sense of the word salad in the summary is welcome to post an explanation - e.g.

I show that different harmonic components have different rhetorical associations in the works studied; that different components are generally associated with different locations in form; and that acknowledging the interaction of different kinds of harmonic structures in a work contributes significantly to an understanding of expressive trajectory and large-scale organization, and—especially—to exegesis of climax events.

Maybe reading the complete 305-page document will produce enlightenment. Or maybe not.

  • Word salad! 😂 It's not a light read Jan 3, 2020 at 22:45
  • If talking about music is like dancing about architecture, then this must be dancing about dancing about architecture. The expressive trajectory goes totally ballistic! Jan 3, 2020 at 22:57
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    It's not "word salad," which implies nonsensical constructions. The passage you quote makes grammatical and semantic sense -- it's just a run-on sentence.
    – Athanasius
    Jan 4, 2020 at 1:28

Obviously the scale is not all equal steps. It's a combination of whole and half steps.

You need to look at some other interval relationship between tones beside step by step intervals.

You can generate an octatonic scale by superimposing two diminished seventh chords each of which is composed of equally spaced minor thirds.

Ex. take a B diminished seventh chord and superimpose a C# diminished seventh chord and you get an octatonic scale.


Here's one writer's description of the octonic scale: 'The octatonic scale alternates between whole and half steps, and is therefore a combination of the principles behind the chromatic scale and the whole-tone scale.'


Maybe that's what your guy was getting at? Give us some more context, it might make more sense.

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