First, I'd like to say that I'm a non native english speaker, and that I'm an amateur in music theory.

Context : Yesterday someone posted this question : What's the point of diatonicism if we don't follow it? using the term "Diatonicism".

Which got the reactions :

"Diatonicism" ... is that a religion or a philosophy or something? ;)


Diatonicism may be an unreflected theory or doctrine of some teachers or a misunderstood concept by students of music theory and practice in history.

I found myself using that word as well, because, in my non native english ears, it reflects exactly what I want to talk about which would be something like , in my opinion :

Diatonicism : the fact of using 7 intervals more than others, constructed by the
sequence of intervals of the major scale (WWhWWWh).

Although I've never seen a music theorist using that term this way (or at all, actually), we can find definitions on online dictionaries that match my definition.

Question : Is "diatonicism" a correct choice of word for what I mean ? Is there another better term for it ?

  • You were faster than I, as I meant to ask a similar question. After I had posted my answer that I had sucked out of my fingers I was interested what I will find about this term. I thought it was a pejorativ expression created by you ;) derived from other ...isms which are indicative for all kind of ideologies. But then I found some links that told me that I should also reflect my answer. Thanks to you and this term I also found the link to pandiatonicism. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pandiatonicism Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 15:16
  • 2
    @AlbrechtHügli As I was not the OP for the linked question using the term "diatonicism", I can't say for sure if he intended to connote it with a sense of "religiousness" :) For me, adding the -ism suffix is just the way of turning an adjective into a noun to express the practice of something related to this adjective, without any mockery or anything
    – 021
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 15:42
  • 1
    Sorry, I missed something mixing you with OP of this question. ;) Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 15:52

4 Answers 4


Yes. Your use of the term diatonic is correct.

You can describe the collection of tones and their intervallic relations in several ways. It's common to describe diatonic as the tones of a major scale.

Recently, I have been thinking of it as the collection of pitch classes you get from six ascending perfect fifths. That doesn't necessarily define a tonic and is "scale agnostic." Those tones could be rearranged into a major scale, Dorian mode, etc.

There is another view that extends that 7 tone notion of diatonicism which says roughly the 12 tone chromatic scale with emphasis on those 7 tones is diatonicism. Personally, that seems circular: if those 7 tones are what makes the distinction, it's simpler to just refer to those 7 tones.

As for the first comment, I think it started with a sarcastic tone that wasn't helpful. In English "diatonic" is an adjective. If you want to use the concept as a noun, the subject of a sentence, you use "diatonicism." Word endings "-ic" and "-ism" modify root words. Compare that with "Catholic" (adjective) and "Catholicism" (a noun.) "-ism" noun forms get used for ideas like religion or art movements, ex. "Cubism." In fact, "ism(s)" is a word in English (deragatory tone) referring to ideologies or philosophies. So, the comments was apparently trying to make a joke, a play on words. Unfortunately, I think the comment had the tone of mocking the question or the notion of diatonicism as a legitimate musical term.

As for the second comment, I think the important part was "...a misunderstood concept by students..." Some people have this strange misunderstanding that classical harmony is diatonic. Literally using only the tones or a key signature an no chromatic tones. The only person who could have that misunderstanding is someone who has spend almost no time reading actual classical scores or someone who stopped reading their harmony textbook after the first few chapters.

We don't need a better word for the concept, because these are standard terminology. Some examples of usage in Grove's Online:

  • "Based on or derivable from an octave of seven notes in a particular configuration, as opposed to Chromatic and other forms of Scale. A seven-note scale is said to be diatonic when its octave span is filled by five tones and two semitones..."
  • "Based on an octave of 12 semitones, as opposed to a seven-note Diatonic scale."
  • "It may be true to the diatonicism of the passage..."


...would you say that harmonic minor is diatonic ?

It seems like old definitions use the Medieval gamut (in modern terms, roughly the major and minor key signatures) as the definition of diatonic. The few I could find at Google books don't make reference to minor specifically.

More modern definitions break out a definition for minor and say the various forms of minor scale (raised or lowered sixth & seventh degree) are considered diatonic.

Personally, I like the old view that diatonic is the Medieval gamut.

I think most people would refer to the raised seventh in minor as a chromatic tone, because it's altered from the key signature. But when putting the question into a context of scale or chords of the key, people then want to call it diatonic. That makes diatonic have the practical meaning of belonging to the key.

I don't think you will escape that dual meaning. People seem to flip back and forth depending on the musical context. The sort of default meaning is the 7 tones of the modes, but when the context is minor key it includes the raised sixth and seventh for 9 tones.

One final thought: I wondered why do people feel the need to fit raised sixth and seventh into a definition of diatonic? That made me realize another important connotation of diatonic. The old view was diatonic tones are natural. Natural in the sense of proper and good. Notice then the application of that notion in natural minor, it's the minor scale form that conforms to the Medieval gamut. I guess some people needed to classify the raised sixth and seventh in minor as diatonic so those tones too could have the status of natural, just as proper and good as the other tones.

  • Very enlightening answer about the words and construction of words. But now, I'm starting to get confused about the notion of diatonic. It seems to me that this term is used to say different things that are closely related. Some use it to speak about the fact of choosing 7 out of 12 tones, other strictly for major scale intervals and some others (like me, at first, now I'm confused x)) to speak about major scales and its modes. I could almost make another question to clear up the misconceptions around that term.
    – 021
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 15:32
  • Recently, I have been thinking of it as the collection of pitch classes you get from six ascending perfect fifths. That doesn't necessarily define a tonic and is "scale agnostic." Those tones could be rearranged into a major scale, Dorian mode, etc. I'd be very glad to have a word for that, since, as said in the previous comment, that's pretty much what I originaly meant by diatonic !
    – 021
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 15:33
  • So you would say that diatonic is a pretty "floaty" term ? I mean, its definition might change depending on the context ?
    – 021
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 16:25
  • "Diatonic" is that word. "Diatonic" is certainly not just major scale. "Major scale and all its modes" is better, but it implies tones arranged in a scale. I described it by fifths and pitch classes to avoid the scalar implications. Lot's of descriptions can be given, but the important thing is the final set of pitch classes. Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 16:27
  • And would you say that harmonic minor is diatonic ? It can't be created with a succession of fifth but it does have 7 out of 12 tones. Sorry for polluting the comment section, but I really want to make sure I get it right :D
    – 021
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 16:31

Diatonic is the use exclusively of notes from a particular key - certainly major notes, and some agree that those from minor keys should be included.

The other notes from the 12 used in Western music are called the chromatic notes.

So the term non-chromatic would be apt.

  • 1
    Oh yeah, your comment made me realise that it seems that diatonic is not always related to major and its modes. I had that misconception, I guess because we use this scale and its modes more than the others...
    – 021
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 10:47
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    It fits the description, though it's a bit disappointing to name it by what it's not instead of what it is !
    – 021
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 10:48
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    +1 given for the answer but surely the word is indeed diatonicism, but ‘non-chromatic’ has a different meaning so shouldn’t be confused with or regarded as a synonym for diatonicism Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 11:27
  • 'Non-toxic', 'non-corrosive', non-compliant', 'non-alcoholic', 'nondescript' - the list goes on... Non too sure about the last one though..!
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 11:39
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    @SteveMansfield, right! Pentatonic is non-chromatic, but not diatonic. Diatonic is the standard, unambiguous term for what the OP asked Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 18:47

I would always have used "diatonicity".


  • 1
    The city of diatonic? Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 15:54
  • @Albrecht That must be where all these devotees of diatonicism are coming from... :D On a more serious note, it seems to fit and be a synonym for diatonicism ... ?
    – 021
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 15:59
  • How about diatonie? Or does this mean something? books.google.com/books/about/… Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 16:04

I have always understood (though perhaps mistakenly) the term diatonic to mean "within the "current" key.

For major keys, it's the obvious. The 7 notes are diatonic.

For minor keys, there are 7 diatonic notes with notes 6 and 7 being mutable. Both forms are diatonic. ( I think jazz-oriented theory does it differently. )

Diatonic as referred to a composition is a bit different. Non-diatonic notes may be "essential" and "non-essential" or "incidental". Various authors differentiate a bit along the margins. Some call secondary dominants or Augmented Sixths "essential" and others don't. Essential chromaticism may still emphasize a key, but removing the chromaticism would change the structure of the motives being used. Non-essential may be used for color (using a tonic minor or major chord in the opposite mode for color or adding an Augmented Sixth in a string of predominant chords.)

The terminology is less important than recognizing what is happening. One can't really escape the terms as there is a Bb in Gregorian Chant.

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