What Does “Diatonic” Mean?
Here’s some info from my scales book.
I’ve seen a lot of confusion about the term “diatonic” in my many years as a guitar teacher. Good news: it’s actually really easy to understand.
The “di” in diatonic is derived from the Greek word for 2. (and also from the Greek “dia”, which means “through” or “entirely”).
Diatonic scales are scales that consist of a series of consecutive 2nd intervals.
This simply means that diatonic scales (“walk through”) use all seven letters.
As an example: pentatonic scales are not diatonic. They only use five letters.
Another prerequisite is that every letter only appears once in the scale. In other words: diatonic scales are 7-note scales.
We can consider the scales that have less than seven notes, “gapped” scales relative to diatonic scales. We can consider the scales that have more than seven notes, as scales with added chromaticism.
The name “Neapolitan” always describes a scale that has a flattened 2nd. As an example: the Neapolitan Prometheus scale is the Prometheus scale with a b2.
The term comes from classical music. The bII chord is called a Neapolitan chord in classical music theory. (I’ve seen some sources name this “Napolitan”, but it is usually spelled as Neapolitan)
The name Neapolitan refers to mostly 2 specific scales:
- The Neapolitan minor scale (scale number 1198 in the book).
1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 7
In the key of C –> C Db Eb F G Ab B
You could think of this as a Phrygian scale with a raised 7th.
- The Neapolitan major scale (scale number 1200 in the book).
1 b2 b3 4 5 6 7
In the key of C –> C Db Eb F G A B
You could think of this as a Phrygian scale with a raised 6th and 7th.
Oddly enough: despite the name, both are minor scales.
Other scales named Neapolitan:
- Prometheus Neapolitan
1 b2 3 b5 6 b7
C Db E Gb A Bb
- Harmonic Neapolitan minor
1 b2 2 b3 4 5 b6 7
C Db D Eb F G Ab B
Octotonic scale, consisting of a harmonic minor scale with an added b2.
- Neapolitan major & minor mixed
1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 6 7
C Db Eb F G Ab A B
Apart from this handful of specific scales that are named Neapolitan: scales with a b2 are usually always called “Phrygian”.
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