What does Diatonic mean in MusicHave you heard the term diatonic when people talk about music and perhaps even music instruments? What does it mean, diatonic?

The ancient history of the word “diatonic” in music, comes from the Greek word diatonikós, which literally means “through tones”. 

What is Diatonic in Music?

In short: it means that you stick to the 7 notes of 1 particular scale and key. Let’s say the key is C major, which are only using the white keys on a piano.

If you play music or any instrument diatonically, it means that you will then only play those 7 white key notes.

The opposite of diatonic is “chromatic”. Chromatic notes are notes that go outside of those 7 notes that define the key you are playing in for any song.

Diatonic vs Chromatic Instruments

As a musician, meaning if you play any music instruments, it’s important to know that there are chromatic instruments as well as diatonic instruments. 

A chromatic instrument can play all 12 notes of music, whereas a diatonic instrument will designed to mainly play the 7 notes of the key it is tuned to.

For example, an Irish flute or tin whistle in D will be designed to play in the D major key. Even if you can do half-holing and special cross fingerings to access more than those 7 notes of the D major scale, the instrument is designed for that key. Which means those diatonic notes will be the most easy to play.

Another example is a lyre harp, let’s say it is tuned to C major. Since you can not do half holing or cross fingerings like on a flute, you will be stuck to the 7 diatonic notes of the C major scale when playing a tune.

However, you can of course tune one or more of the strings so that your lyre will be in a different diatonic key. For example, lowering the B to Bb will make your lyre play diatonically in the D minor scale.