What Is Just Scale in Music? Exploring Its Harmonic Perfection

Unveil the beauty of the just scale in music. Explore its harmonic perfection and impact in music production. Elevate your musical creations today!

Image of sheet music on a stand. Source: unsplash

Ever wondered what makes music sound so harmonious? Prepare to dive into the world of musical perfection as we unravel the enchanting realm of the just scale. Can you imagine a scale that represents absolute harmonic beauty, yet poses a fascinating challenge? Let’s explore the depths of the just scale and discover its secrets!

What is just scale in music? The just scale is a tuning system that measures the 7 diatonic notes of the major scale in relation to the fundamental note, creating a harmonically perfect representation. However, due to its unique ratios, the just scale can only be applied to one key signature at a time, presenting both its allure and limitations.

What are the basics of the just scale?

The just scale, also known as Pythagorean tuning, dates back to ancient times, making it the oldest form of musical tuning. It revolves around the concept of measuring the 7 diatonic notes of the major scale in relation to the fundamental note, which serves as the tonic of the scale. Let’s break it down and explore the basics of the just scale.

Image of sheet music on a stand. Source: unsplash
Image of sheet music on a stand. Source: unsplash

In the just scale, each diatonic note is derived from specific ratios based on the fundamental note. These ratios ensure a harmonically perfect relationship among the notes. For instance, the interval between the fundamental note and the first diatonic note (unison) has a ratio of 1:1, signifying their fundamental equivalence. This creates a foundational connection between the notes.

To better visualize the ratios used in the just scale, let’s dive into a graphical illustration. Imagine a diagram representing the ratios between the fundamental note and the other diatonic notes. This portrays the proportional relationships that form the foundation of the just scale.

Image of sheet music on a stand. Source: unsplash
My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

What is just scale in music? Exploring its harmonic perfection | 717qmgla7zl. Ac sl1500 | audio apartment
My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

I’m loving the AKAI MPK Mini MK3 for its compact design and the range of controls. It’s one of my essential tools. The velocity-sensitive keys and MPC-style pads are great for making beats, while the thumbstick and knobs give me precise control.

What is just intonation used for?

Just intonation is often used in the creation and analysis of music, specifically in the fields of musical tuning and harmony. It is also used for a variety of purposes, including:

  • Creating harmonious sounds: In just intonation, the interval ratios are chosen to be simple fractions, which leads to harmonious-sounding chords and intervals. This is because these intervals have a clear and stable mathematical relationship. Many people find these intervals to be more pleasing or natural-sounding than those produced by other tuning systems, such as equal temperament, which is commonly used in Western music.
  • Music composition: Some composers use just intonation as a tool for creating new music, especially those interested in exploring alternative tunings and microtonal music. The use of just intonation can give a piece of music a unique character and sound.
  • Historical and ethnomusicological studies: Just intonation is believed to be the system of tuning used in many ancient musical traditions, from Greek music to early church music. It is also used in many non-Western musical traditions. Therefore, understanding just intonation can provide insight into how this music was originally intended to sound.
  • Instrument building and tuning: Some instruments, such as certain types of harps or string instruments, can be built or tuned to use just intonation. This is particularly true for instruments that are not fixed-pitch (like the piano), where the player has more control over the exact pitch of each note.

Here’s a handy table of the dos and don’ts of just intonation:

Do use just intonation for music that stays within one key or mode.Don’t use just intonation for music that changes keys frequently.
Do use just intonation when you want to achieve perfectly pure intervals and harmonies.Don’t expect easy transposability of chords and scales with just intonation.
Do use just intonation to explore historical or non-western music, which may have been originally composed using just intonation.Don’t use just intonation on fixed-pitch instruments, like the piano, without retuning for each key or mode.
Do experiment with just intonation if you’re interested in composing microtonal music or exploring unique soundscapes.Don’t assume just intonation will work well for all musical contexts; it has its specific applications and limitations.
Dos and don’ts of just intonation

What are the limitations of the just scale?

The just scale offers an extraordinary promise—absolute harmonic perfection. The ratios used in this tuning system ensure that all musical consonances produce no beat frequency. Consonances, such as the perfect fifth and major third, sound incredibly pleasing to the ear due to their specific ratio relationships.

Image showing just diatonic scale on c. Source: wiki commons
Image showing just diatonic scale on c. Source: wiki commons

However, the just scale comes with a trade-off. Due to the unique ratios used, this tuning system can only apply to one key signature at a time. For example, if an instrument is tuned to a just C scale (all white notes on the piano), attempting to play a D scale would result in being out of tune. This limitation restricts the versatility of playing music in different key signatures.

Despite its constraints, the just tuning system still finds use in various ensemble settings, such as choral or orchestra works. In these contexts, the players often match pitch with each other “by ear,” relying on their musical intuition and sensitivity to create harmonious performances.

What is the tempered scale?

The limitations of the just tuning system led to the development of alternative tuning systems, with one of the most prominent being the tempered scale. The tempered scale was specifically designed for keyboard instruments like the piano to ensure they could be played equally well (or badly) in any key. This compromise tuning scheme revolutionized musical possibilities by allowing seamless transitions between different key signatures.

The equal tempered system operates on a constant frequency multiple between the notes of the chromatic scale.

The equal tempered system operates on a constant frequency multiple between the notes of the chromatic scale. Unlike the just scale, which relies on specific ratios, the equal tempered scale divides the octave into 12 equally spaced semitones. This equal spacing allows for seamless transitions between different key signatures without compromising overall tonal quality.

What is the difference between just and tempered scale?

Just intonation and tempered scales (most commonly equal temperament) are two different systems of tuning used in music, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. Just intonation tunes notes so that they match the natural ‘harmonic series’, leading to very pure sounding harmonies. However, it doesn’t work well when you want to change keys within a piece of music.

Equal Temperament (Tempered Scale) slightly adjusts the tuning of notes so you can play in any key and it will sound ‘in tune’. It’s a bit of a compromise: the notes aren’t as perfectly tuned as in just intonation, but you can change keys easily. This system is used in most modern Western music.

Table of the scale of just intonation

The scale of just intonation commonly used in Western music is based on the key of C. This table only provides one example of a justly intoned scale, specifically a diatonic scale in the key of C. The notes and their frequency ratios, in relation to the tonic (C), are as follows:

NoteRatio to TonicApproximate Interval
C#16/15Minor second
D9/8Major second
D#6/5Minor third
E5/4Major third
F4/3Perfect fourth
G3/2Perfect fifth
G#8/5Minor sixth
A5/3Major sixth
A#16/9Minor seventh
B15/8Major seventh
Scale of just intonation

Note that the ratios for the sharps/flats are not commonly used in traditional Western music, but are included to show what a full chromatic scale might look like in just intonation.

If you want even more great tips and information, check out the video below.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Here are some common questions people have about the just scale and its implications in music production, home studio recording, and audio engineering.

How does the just scale differ from the equal tempered scale?

The just scale and the equal tempered scale have distinct characteristics. The just scale offers exquisite consonances and harmonic perfection but is limited to a single key signature, while the equal tempered scale provides versatility in all key signatures. The choice depends on your desired tonal qualities and the musical versatility you seek.

Are there any other tuning systems I should explore besides the just scale and equal tempered scale?

Absolutely! In addition to the just scale and equal tempered scale, you can explore historical temperaments such as the Pythagorean scale, the Mean-tone scale, and the Werckmeister scale. These offer unique tonal qualities and can inspire creative musical expressions.

Can the just scale be used in home recording studios and digital audio workstations (DAWs)?

Yes, the just scale can be utilized in home recording studios and DAWs. However, it requires careful tuning adjustments and limitations in terms of transpositions and modulations. It can be suitable for specific compositions that focus on a single key signature, allowing you to capture the pure beauty of harmonic consonances.


As we wrap up our exploration of the just scale and its counterparts, it’s clear that music is a universe of harmonies waiting to be discovered. Whether you choose the harmonic perfection of the just scale or the versatile landscape of the equal tempered scale, remember that each tuning system offers unique possibilities for your musical creations.

Did I cover everything you wanted to know? Let me know in the comments section below. I read and reply to every comment. If you found this article helpful, share it with a friend, and check out my full blog for more tips and tricks on exploring the fascinating world of musical theory and production. Thanks for reading, and may your musical journey be filled with melodies that strike a chord in the hearts of listeners!

Key Takeaways

This article covered the concept of the just scale. Here are some key takeaways:

  • The just scale offers harmonic perfection but restricts music to a single key signature, while the equal tempered scale provides versatility across all key signatures.
  • Historical temperaments like the Pythagorean scale, Mean-tone scale, and Werckmeister scale offer alternative tonal possibilities.
  • Understanding different tuning systems empowers musicians and producers to make informed creative decisions in their compositions and recordings.

Helpful resources

Image Andrew Ash
Written by Andrew Ash, Staff Writer

Hey there! My name is Andrew, and I'm relatively new to music production, but I've been learning a ton, and documenting my journey along the way. That's why I started this blog. If you want to improve your home studio setup and learn more along with me, this is the place for you!

Nick eggert.
Edited by Nick Eggert, Staff Editor

Nick is our staff editor and co-founder. He has a passion for writing, editing, and website development. His expertise lies in shaping content with precision and managing digital spaces with a keen eye for detail.

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