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45: Pentatonic Scales

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Lesson 45: Pentatonic Scales

This lesson explores pentatonic scales, which are used often in pop music.

Before taking this lesson, you should know:
Any 5-note scale is, technically, a "pentatonic scale". This lesson, however, is about two particular 5-note scales commonly used in pop music:
  • The major pentatonic scale
  • The minor pentatonic scale

Major Pentatonic Scale


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
A♭B♭C E♭FA♭
ABC♯ EF♯A
B♭CD FGB♭
BC♯D♯ F♯A♯B
CDE GAC
D♭E♭F A♭B♭D♭
DEF♯ ABD
E♭FG B♭CE♭
EF♯G♯ BC♯E
FGA CDF
F♯G♯ A♯C♯D♯ F♯
G♭A♭ B♭D♭E♭G♭
GAB DEG

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 when you use it for melodies, 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.

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 26: 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.

Minor Pentatonic Scale


The minor pentatonic scale consists of 5 notes from the natural minor scale. Here are the scale degrees in the minor pentatonic scale (shown relative to the major scale):

  1   ♭3   4   5   ♭7

Here are the pitches in the common minor pentatonic scales:

1 ♭3 4 5 ♭7 8
ACD EGA
B♭D♭ E♭FA♭B♭
BDE F♯AB
CE♭F GB♭C
C♯EF♯ G♯BC♯
DFG ACD
D♯F♯ G♯A♯C♯D♯
E♭G♭ A♭B♭D♭E♭
EGA BDE
FA♭B♭ CE♭F
F♯AB C♯EF♯
GB♭C DFG
G♯BC♯ D♯F♯G♯

The minor pentatonic scale is generally used with minor keys or minor chords, the same way the major pentatonic scale is used with major keys or major chords. However, the minor pentatonic scale is sometimes used an additional way in music with a blues feel. In blues, even major-key blues, the key-based minor pentatonic scale is sometimes used for melodies.

Exercises


You can add these activities to your writing exercises (from Lesson 2: Practicing Songwriting):
  • Practice playing these 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 pentatonic scales are just one type 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 pentatonic scales (both key-based and chord-based), and other pitch palettes you've found by analyzing songs.

Next:
If you understand pentatonic scales, you're ready for Lesson 46: Embellishing Tones.

Lessons

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

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