What is a pentatonic scale?
A Pentatonic scale is a scale with 5 notes (from the Greek word ‘pente’ meaning 5). The easiest way to play one is to play the 5 black notes on a piano one after each other – if you do this, you will have played a pentatonic scale.
You can hear how the scale has a characteristic sound. It is a sound that is very evocative of traditional music from China and other Southeast Asian countries. Pentatonic Scales are characteristic of some of the oldest forms of music discovered from c. 2000 BC. Some medieval plainchants used them as did indigenous music from all around the globe. They are still used today in rock, blues and jazz as well as traditional music such as Indian ragas.
One of the amazing things about pentatonic scales is that they lend themselves very readily to improvisation and so are a fantastic tool for students (especially beginners) who are wanting to develop their composing and performing skills. You can play almost any of the 5 notes of the scale at any point and it will not sound “jarring”.
Have a listen to this improvisation using just the 5 black notes of the piano keyboard – you can hear how the notes seem to “work” well in whatever order they are performed:
There are 2 common pentatonic scales that are widely used in contemporary music.
Major Pentatonic scale
The Major pentatonic scale uses the root, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th notes from the major scale (it does not use the 4th and the 7th notes):
For example, if we play a C major pentatonic scale then we will play the notes C, D, E, G, A as follows:
We could do the same starting on G and play a G major pentatonic scale:
Here are 2 more examples, one starting on D and the other on E:
Minor pentatonic scale
The Minor pentatonic scale uses the root, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th notes from the natural minor scale (it does not use the 2nd or the 6th notes):
For example, if we play an A minor pentatonic scale then we will play the notes A, C, D, E, G as follows:
Here are some more examples starting on C, D, E and G:
You can hear how the minor pentatonic scale sounds quite “bluesy” when improvised:
Both the major and minor pentatonic scales can be used when playing blues music, depending on the key you are playing in. However, the addition of a “blue” note to each of the scales is particularly effective in creating that bluesy feel to your music. A “blue” note is one which you can slide off the playing.
For example, if you are wanting to play blues using the major pentatonic scale then the addition of a flattened 3rd note of the scale works really well. If we do this in C major then the addition of an E flat note achieves this:
In the minor pentatonic, the addition of a flattened 5th note of the scale works well. So, in A minor the addition of an E flat would be very effective:
Pentatonic scales are very common in traditional Scottish music and the well known song Auld Lang Syne is built on a major one:
In addition, the much loved hymn Amazing Grace also uses the major pentatonic scale.
I hope you found this lesson helpful. If you are wanting to apply this to your composition my suggestion would be to do the following:
- Have a go at improvising using just the 5 black notes of the piano keyboard. Try to listen for what rhythms and phrases are most effective. Can you shape the phrases of the melodies you are improvising? You may want to try to improvise in 2, 4 and 8 bar phrases to give a sense of balance to your piece. Remember, as long as you stick to these 5 notes then the overall sound should be quite pleasing.
- Once you have done this, repeat step 1 in the different keys given in the sheet music and audio examples above – you may want to try in the major and minor of each key to compare the different characteristic sounds.
- Have a go at adding the “blue” notes into the scales – this can be great fun and a really effective way of creating a “bluesy” sound. Good luck!