In the question What are the notes in the D major scale?, I'm trying to work out what type of word major is.

A scale just means a sequence of notes with defined intervals between them, and these intervals are not identifiable until the scale is qualified with a name.. major, blues etc.

Is it an adjective because it describes/qualifies what 'kind' of scale, or is it a proper noun because it is an 'instance/subclass' of 'scale'?

I'm trying to think of a metaphor.. the common noun 'tree'.. brown is the adjective that describes it, and 'Cedar' is the proper noun, correct?

So for my phrase, 'major' seems to do both jobs. I'm confused...

  • Nouns can modify words: elephant gun, mouse trap, ice cream van. None of these are proper nouns. Commented Jan 11, 2014 at 19:02
  • Thanks Peter - I never considered that noun modification thing, and also proper nouns are usually capitalised / always ?
    – magus
    Commented Jan 11, 2014 at 19:07
  • "Is it an adjective because it describes/qualifies what 'kind' of scale, or is it a proper noun because it is an 'instance/subclass' of 'scale' ?" doesn't recognise that there are adjectives used as classifying adjectives. Thus a chemical reaction, a nuclear reactor. // There has been at least one monograph written on the attributive noun ... pre-modifying adjective divide, with no final decision on an accurate partitioning. Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 9:34

2 Answers 2


In music, a scale is any set of musical notes ordered by fundamental frequency or pitch. A musical scale represents a division of the octave space into a certain number of scale steps, a scale step being the recognizable distance (or interval) between two successive notes of the scale.

A specific scale is defined by its characteristic interval pattern and by a special note, known as its first degree (or tonic). The name of the scale specifies both its tonic and its interval pattern. For example, C-major indicates a major scale in which C is the tonic. The A major scale is written A–B–C♯–D–E–F♯–G♯, etc.

Therefore D-major is a noun, as scale is a noun. It's like saying, This is the person, Magus.

some scales are used in jazz and modern classical music, others in common in folk music, especially in oriental music; some have limited use in liturgy, others blues, jazz, etc.

Edited to add: Now I'm really confused.

major adjective: a: having half steps between the third and fourth and the seventh and eighth degrees b : based on a major scale c : equivalent to the distance between the keynote and another tone (except the fourth and fifth) of a major scale

noun (b:) a major musical interval, scale, key, or mode

major noun (5.) Music. a major interval, chord, scale, etc.

ma·jor adjective

  1. important, serious, or significant. antonyms: little, trivial, minor
  2. Music: (of a scale) having an interval of a semitone between the third and fourth degrees and the seventh and eighth degrees. (of an interval) equivalent to that between the tonic and another note of a major scale, and greater by a semitone than the corresponding minor interval. (of a key) based on a major scale, tending to produce a bright or joyful effect. "Prelude in G Major"

noun 1. an army officer of high rank, in particular... 2. Music: a major key, interval, or scale. 3. a student's principal subject or course of study. 4. a major world organization, company, or competition; the major leagues. 5. a person of full legal age. 6. Logic: a major term or premise. 7. Bridge: short for major suit.

verb 1. specialize in (a particular subject) at a college or university.

  • I was deliberately trying to exclude the idea of 'in the key of ..', since that adds a third variable (scale, type of scale(major), tonic/key), since it should be possible to understand the relationship of major+scale alone (having unique tone/semitone intervals etc, but without a tonic note specified), but I guess your answer would still them same. A major scale is a noun.. 'this is the scale, major.' .. makes sense, thanks.
    – magus
    Commented Jan 11, 2014 at 19:36
  • @magus - don't forget to upvote valuable answers and select the answer you think best when you have options. Too often, people just say thanks, without giving responders the benefit of an upvote. Commented Jan 11, 2014 at 19:51
  • Sure.. just done that. I think my confusion comes from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_and_minor ' the adjectives major and minor'. In the context of 'scale' it could be a noun, but also could describe chords, intervals, etc. having a major 'quality' / specific tone/semitone intervals characteristic of 'major'. The answer might be - 'depends on the context'.
    – magus
    Commented Jan 11, 2014 at 19:56
  • agreed, but the chords are named, the G chord. Chord isn't an adjective. Let me research that a bit more, and I'll update me post. Commented Jan 11, 2014 at 20:00
  • 1
    Looks like 'both' (and/or neither :-). So 'major scale' is a noun. But if I said 'a major type of scale', it's an adjective.. ie having the major interval qualities that make it sound happy. This is actually really useful.. I am parsing english sentences programmatically.. and what this all means is that until I work out the context of the other words in the sentence, I can't decide which it is, which is fine.
    – magus
    Commented Jan 11, 2014 at 20:40

As a musician, I treat a phrase like D major scale as the noun scale with the two adjectival modifiers D and major. I think that major is an adjective.

To support my view, I submit that you can discuss a musical scale without the modifiers D or major, but it doesn't make sense to a musician to discuss a major as a noun. That is, this sentence is grammatically correct:

I practiced the scale for 15 minutes.

But this one isn't:

I practiced the major for 15 minutes.

As for the argument that D major scale can be treated as a single compound noun: Isn't the point of an adjective to specify what type of noun you're dealing with? So it's true that a scale has a root (like D) and a quality (like major). However, both the root and the quality are more appropriately treated as modifiers of the noun scale rather than parts of a compound noun.

For phrases like "Play this piece in D major," @Janus Bahs Jacquet posted this comment arguing that D major is a noun-like term D with the adjective major:

To me, ‘major’ is an postpositive adjective modifying the noun (or nominal element, anyway) ‘D’. (This is how the OED treats it, too.) In ‘C♯ dorian’, I would also think of ‘dorian’ as an adjective, just like I would when talking of ‘columns Doric and Corinthian’, or indeed of ‘sergeants-major’. –

  • 1
    Just because something modifies a noun doesn’t mean it has to be an adjective. Neither D nor major is an adjective here. I would interpet D major as a noun in and of itself, so what we have with a D major scale is a noun–noun constructions, just as we have with a cat door, baby food, or house hunter. It’s like if someone said they’d rather it were in C♯ dorian. Those are both nouns; no adjectives need apply. Nouns can specify which nouns we have.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 12, 2014 at 0:28
  • 3
    @tchrist, I’d disagree with that. To me, ‘major’ is an postpositive adjective modifying the noun (or nominal element, anyway) ‘D’. (This is how the OED treats it, too.) In ‘C♯ dorian’, I would also think of ‘dorian’ as an adjective, just like I would when talking of ‘columns Doric and Corinthian’, or indeed of ‘sergeants-major’. Commented Jan 12, 2014 at 1:36
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet Interesting the possibility of a post-positive adjective.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jan 12, 2014 at 5:18
  • I'm leaning towards doing this - in the 1st pass parsing the sentence, treat 'major' as a standalone word as an adjective. Consider 1. 'd major scale' and 2. 'in a major key' - it is less useful to say that major is a noun in both cases. In 1, major qualifies the 'scale' type. In 2, it acts as a filter on the set of keys (major vs minor). Then on the 2nd pass, which groups words into phrases, 'major scale' becomes a hyponym of'scale' ie. 'is a subclass of'. Somehow this seems a better fit. Perhaps calling 'major scale' a noun isn't incorrect, hyponym seems more useful.
    – magus
    Commented Jan 12, 2014 at 6:57
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: Thanks for that explanation. I hadn't really thought of how to treat phrases like "D major" when I wrote the answer, so I added your comment to my answer.
    – Kevin
    Commented Jan 12, 2014 at 6:59

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