Octatonic Scale: Definition & Properties

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  • 0:03 Major and Minor Scales
  • 1:55 The Octatonic Scale
  • 3:22 Properties of the Octatonic
  • 5:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the octatonic scale, a synthetic scale that has fascinated composers since the 1800s. Learn about the scale's history, its fascinating properties, and how to build an octatonic collection yourself.

Major and Minor Scales

A musical scale is a collection of notes organized by pitch. These collections can take many different forms and have many different kinds of sound. Most music, regardless of genre, is based on some type of scale. Most commonly in classical music we'll hear two main types of scales: the major scale and the minor scale. That means most music played by classical ensembles will be made of melodies and harmonies derived from these two scales.

Every member of a major or minor scale is, at most, a whole step away from its adjacent members of the scale. That means that major and minor scales can be thought of as patterns of steps. Using a certain pattern of whole and half steps will generate each scale, no matter what your starting note is. A major scale, for example, can be generated using the pattern: whole step, whole step, half step; whole step, whole step, whole step, half step. This scale provides the material for a lot of pop and classical music. If we measure the intervals between each note, we'll see this pattern at work: whole, whole, half; whole, whole, whole, half. This pattern will work with any other starting note as well. For example, if we take E flat as our starting note and then follow the step pattern whole, whole, half; whole, whole, whole, half, we'll end up with an E flat major scale.

For minor, the pattern of steps is: whole step, half step, whole step; whole step, half step, whole step, whole step. Just like with the major step pattern, this pattern will generate a minor scale no matter what starting note you choose. Try it with a few notes on your own.

The Octatonic Scale

In the late 1800s, composers began looking for new collections that could yield different sounds and expressions than the major and minor scales could. Composers worked to develop new scales and chords that were unlike what had been seen in classical music before. In particular, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was famous for his use of the octatonic scale, an eight-note collection of alternating whole and half steps. The octatonic scale has eight individual notes, which is where it gets its name. You might also hear it called the diminished scale.

Were we to draw a scale pattern for the octatonic like we did for major and minor scales, it would read: whole, half, whole, half; whole, half, whole, half, or half, whole, half, whole; half, whole, half, whole. That means that for every starting note, there are actually two octatonic scale patterns: one that starts with a half step and one that starts with a whole step. Music theorists differentiate between the two by referring to them as octatonic half-whole or octatonic whole-half, respectively. In addition to Rimsky-Korsakov, composers around the world found ways to use the octatonic in their pieces, including Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok, and Benjamin Britten.

Properties of the Octatonic

So what was it that drew composers like Rimsky-Korsakov to the octatonic? What made this scale set so fascinating? Besides its eerie, other-wordly sound, the octatonic has some very interesting properties that very few other collections have. To begin, the octatonic is symmetrical. In this context, the word 'symmetry' means that the octatonic divides the octave into equal parts. Imagine an octatonic half-whole scale, which goes from C to C, like the one shown.


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