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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. – Peter Shor Jan 11 '14 at 19:02
  • Thanks Peter - I never considered that noun modification thing, and also proper nouns are usually capitalised / always ? – magus Jan 11 '14 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. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 28 '15 at 9:34
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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 Jan 11 '14 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. – anongoodnurse Jan 11 '14 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 Jan 11 '14 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. – anongoodnurse Jan 11 '14 at 20:00
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    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 Jan 11 '14 at 20:40
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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’. –

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    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 Jan 12 '14 at 0:28
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    @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’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 12 '14 at 1:36
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Interesting the possibility of a post-positive adjective. – tchrist Jan 12 '14 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 Jan 12 '14 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 Jan 12 '14 at 6:59

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