Pop Music Theory


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36: Major Pentatonic Scale

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Lesson 36: Major Pentatonic Scale

This lesson explores the major pentatonic scale, a popular scale in pop music.

Before taking this lesson, you should know:
If you know the major scale, then the major pentatonic scale is easy; you just leave out degrees 4 and 7. So, the major pentatonic scale is just these degrees of the major scale:

  1   2   3   5   6

For reference, here are the pitches in the common major pentatonic scales:

1 2 3 5 6 8
D♭E♭F A♭B♭D♭
F♯G♯ A♯C♯D♯ F♯
G♭A♭ B♭D♭E♭G♭

Why use this scale? If this scale is just some notes from the major scale, why call it a separate scale? The answer: What you leave out in music is as important as what you put in. The major pentatonic scale has its own feel, which you might call "simple" or "primitive" or "folk-y" or "rock-y", compared to using the complete major scale.

Key-based or chord-based. You may find this scale used two different ways:
  • Key-based: In this usage, the key's pentatonic scale is used over a whole series of chords. For example, say the song is in the key of C; then the melody would use notes from the C major pentatonic scale, even while the chords are changing.
  • Chord-based: In this usage, the chord's pentatonic scale is used. For example, say the song uses the C, F, and G chords; then the melody would use notes from the C major pentatonic scale over the C chord, notes from the F major pentatonic scale over the F chord, and notes from the G major pentatonic scale over the G chord.

The major pentatonic scale is just one example of a pitch palette; that is, using a limited set of pitches to create meaning for the listener.

Exercises (from Lesson 2: Practicing Songwriting):
  • Practice playing the major pentatonic scales in several keys.
  • Analyze songs you like for their pitch palette(s), both key-based and chord-based. Analyze one phrase or section at a time, because the pitch palette may change from section to section. The major pentatonic scale is just one example of the different pitch palettes you may find. What emotional effects do you find in different pitch palettes?
  • Look at your own songs. What pitch palettes have you been using? Try something different; create melodies using the major pentatonic scale (both key-based and chord-based), and other pitch palettes you've found by analyzing songs.

Why 1 2 3 5 6?

If you're wondering why this particular subset (1 2 3 5 6) of the major scale should be "special", more than other possible subsets (e.g. 1 2 3 4 5), here are some reasons:
  • Evenly spaced: There are a couple of ways to take 5-pitch subsets of the major scale and keep the "gaps" small; this is one of them.
  • Contains I chord: This major pentatonic scale includes all of the notes of the key's I chord (Lesson 27: Diatonic Function Analysis).
  • Circle of 5ths: The pitches in this major pentatonic scale are all connected in the circle of 5ths. If you don't know what this means, you can start with Harmonics.

Major Hexatonic Scale

Another subset of the major scale which is not talked about as much as the major pentatonic scale is the major hexatonic scale (6 pitches):

  1   2   3   4   5   6

Note: The definition of "major hexatonic scale" is not well standardized; you can find it defined as different sets of scale degrees in different sources. I vote for this definition (1 2 3 4 5 6 ) because:
  • It follows the evenly spaced and circle of 5ths criteria in the "Why 1 2 3 5 6?" sidebar above;
  • I have seen this scale used in real pop songs; I noticed it in Bruce Hornsby songs, for example.

Keep your ears/eyes open for this major hexatonic scale when you're analyzing songs for pitch palettes.

Next: If you understand the major pentatonic scale, you're ready for Embellishing Tones.

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1: Introduction
2: Practicing Songwriting
3: Pitch Names
4: Letters Game
5: Sharps & Flats
6: Half-Steps
7: Whole-Steps
8: Steps Game
9: Scales
10: Major Scale 1-2-3
11: Major 1-2-3 Games
12: Major Scale 1-5
13: Major 1-5 Games
14: Chords: Major Triads
15: Major Triad Games
16: Minor Triads
17: Minor Triad Games
18: Major Scale 1-8
19: Major Scale Games
20: Keys
21: Roman Numeral Chords
22: Scales Above 8
23: Diatonic Triads
24: Using Diatonics
25: Tonic Function
26: Subdominant & Dominant
27: Diatonic Function Analysis
28: Melody: Chord Tones
29: Treble Staff
30: Treble Staff Game
31: Time: Beats & Measures
32: Note Lengths
33: Tied & Dotted Notes
34: Rhythm: Rests
35: Melody Rhythm: Rolling Stone
36: Major Pentatonic Scale
37: 7th Chords
38: 7ths Games
39: Pitch & Frequency

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