• Who Else Is Interested In Learning What The Term Diatonic Means?

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    The goal of this lesson is to give you an insider perspective to what the term diatonic means.

    In a previous lesson, we started out by learning what the term chromatic means and we also explored chromatic notes, scales and intervals. In today’s lesson, we’re going a step further into the term diatonic.

    At the end of this lesson, you’ll not only know what the term diatonic means, you’d also be able to also know what diatonic scales, diatonic intervals, diatonic chords and diatonic chord progressions are.

    Let’s get started with a review on the concept of key.

    A Review On The Concept Of Key

    If you’ve been around musicians, you must have heard phrases like these:

    • “We’re playing Total Praise in the key of Db major”
    • “Put me in the key of F”
    • “There’s a modulation to the key of Eb before the final verse of the song”

    …or similar ones.

    “Can I Tell You What Musicians Mean When They Say Key?”

    Although there are twelve musical notes:

    …it takes a collection of eight degrees or notes to form a key.

    First note is the tonic.

    Second note is the supertonic.

    Third note is the mediant.

    Fourth note is the subdominant.

    Fifth note is the dominant.

    Sixth note is the submediant.

    Seventh note is the subtonic.

    Eighth note is the octave.

    The goal of these eight notes is to establish a particular note as a key center, with every other note in the key having its unique relationship with it.

    In the concept of key, the first tone (aka – “the tonic”) in a key is established as the key center. For example, these set of eight notes:

    …the first tone (which is C):

    …is the key center. Consequently, the goal of these collection of eight notes:

    …is to establish C:

    …as a tonal center or key center.

    Summarily, there are two key types – the major key and the minor key. The goal of these set of eight notes:

    …is to establish the key of C major, while the goal of these eight notes:

    …is to establish the key of C minor.

    Although C is the tonic in both cases, the major key differs from the minor key in character, feeling and other wise.

    Now that we’ve reviewed the

    The Term Diatonic – Explained

    Although there are many perspectives to the term diatonic, we’d be concentrating on two perspectives.

    The first perspective is the modal perspective, in which the term diatonic is attributed to musical elements that are based on the white notes (aka – “naturals”) on the keyboard. The second perspective is the tonal perspective, where the term diatonic is attributed to musical elements that are related to a particular key.

    Let’s go ahead and expound on both perspectives.

    Perspective #1 -The Modal Perspective

    There are seven white notes on the piano – C to B:

    The term diatonic is an attribute of a musical idea that is related to a collection of white notes on the piano from a given note to its octave.

    For example, from C to C:

    …D to D:

    …E to E:

    …F to F:

    …G to G:

    …A to A:

    …B to B:

    …are all diatonic because they consist of the white notes on the piano.

    The term diatonic literally means through the tones. Consequently, any musical element (be it a scale, interval, chord, or chord progression) that involves the white notes on the piano is said to be diatonic.

    Several centuries ago, the diatonic arrangement of white notes from one given white note to its octave (commonly known as modes) were used.

    “Check Out All The Diatonic Modes…”

    The ionian mode:

    The dorian mode:

    The phrygian mode:

    The lydian mode:

    The myxolydian mode:

    The aeolian mode:

    The locrian mode:

    The modal use of the term diatonic does not favor the introduction of some or any of the black notes into a diatonic element. Doing that produces a chromatic element.

    Perspective #2 -The Tonal Perspective

    There are eight notes in every key – whether major or minor.

    From a tonal perspective, the term diatonic refers to the notes of a given key. For example, in the key of C major – C, D, E, F, G, A, B and C:

    …are considered to be diatonic while in the key of C minor – C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb and C:

    …are considered to be diatonic.

    In the tonal perspective, the use of the term diatonic, varies from key to key and is not limited to white and black. Although the note C:

    …is diatonic in the key of C major:

    …it is NOT considered so in the key of B major:


    …is a chromatic (or foreign) variant of C#:

    …which is the second tone in the key of B:

    In a nutshell, only the notes in a given key are considered to be diatonic. Other tones that don’t belong to the key are considered to be chromatic.

    A Short Note On Diatonic Elements

    Let’s end today’s lesson by taking a look at some diatonic elements like

    • Diatonic scales
    • Diatonic intervals
    • Diatonic chords
    • Diatonic chord progressions

    …from a tonal perspective.

    Diatonic Scales

    The natural scales of the major and minor keys are two commonly used diatonic scales. The natural major scale is the diatonic scale of the major key while the natural minor scale is the diatonic scale of the minor key.

    The harmonic and melodic minor scales are considered as chromatic variants of the natural minor scale. Hence, they are not diatonic scales.

    Diatonic Intervals

    An interval that is formed by the relationship between two notes in a given diatonic is known as a diatonic interval. In the key of C major:

    …the following intervals:




    …are diatonic intervals because the notes that make up the interval are related by the C natural major scale.

    Diatonic Chords

    A chord is a collection of three or more related notes played together.

    In a diatonic chord, the notes played together are related by the diatonic scale of the key. In the key of C major:

    …the C major triad:

    …and the F major triad:

    …are considered as diatonic chords because they consist of notes that are diatonic to the key of C major.

    Diatonic Chord Progressions

    The movement of chords from one degree of the scale to another creates a chord progression. A chord progression between two or more diatonic chords produces a diatonic chord progression.

    In the key of C major:

    …a chord progression from the D minor seventh chord:

    …to the G dominant seventh chord:

    …then to the C major seventh chord:

    …is considered as a diatonic chord progression.

    Final Words

    I’m sure you’ve gained two perspectives to what the term diatonic means. In another lesson, we’ll be doing a contrast between the term chromatic and the term diatonic.

    See you then!

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    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku (aka - "Dr. Pokey") is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.


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