A Beginner's Guide to Pentatonic Scales

Pentatonic (five-note) scales are ubiquitous in music. They have been heard since ancient times and form the basis of traditional Japanese, Chinese, and Celtic music. They are heard in blues and rock guitar solos for decades, and if you have heard “Amazing Grace,” written by John Newton in the eighteenth century, or “I Got Rhythm” and “Summertime,” written by George Gershwin in the twentieth century, you have heard music based on pentatonic scales.

To create a pentatonic scale, take the seven notes of a major scale (C – D – E – F – G – A – B) and remove the fourth and seventh notes (F and B). What’s left is a pentatonic scale (C – D – E – G – A).

Look closely at those five notes and notice how there are no half steps. This means you are less likely to hear discordant sounds in pentatonic melodies and harmonies. You are also less likely to hear a strong sense of the tonic, causing the music to have fewer, if any, tonal “punctuation” marks. If the timbre is not too harsh, pentatonic scales will provide you with benevolent melodies and pleasant harmonies.

As a guide to identifying the pentatonic sound in classical music I have embedded a video in which Bobby McFerrin demonstrates the “naturalness,” as well as the predictability, of the pentatonic scale.

After watching the video, listen to
The Girl with the Flaxen Hair and Arabesque #1 by Claude Debussy. Notice the use of the black keys on The Girl with the Flaxen Hair. If you play only the black keys on a piano, you are playing a pentatonic scale. Notice in both pieces how a pentatonic scale creates music that “flows,” music that has few moments of tonic rest and almost no discordant harmonies.

Enjoy, and don’t overlook the postscript after the

Bobby McFerrin at the 2009 World Science Festival

Debussy, The Girl with the Flaxen Hair (via BachScholar.com)

Debussy, Arabesque #1 (1888) (performed by Stephen Malinowski)

Postscript: Bobby McFerrin’s demonstration of a pentatonic scale was part of a discussion at the 2009 World Science Festival titled “Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus.” The discussion centered around the brain’s interaction with music, and focused on answering the following questions:
  • Is our response to music hard-wired or culturally determined?
  • Is the reaction to rhythm and melody universal or influenced by environment?
I have embedded the entire discussion below. It might be long, but it’s also enlightening and well worth the time.

"Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus," 2009 World Science Festival