45: Pentatonic Scales
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Lesson 45: Pentatonic ScalesThis 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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
You can add these activities to your writing exercises (from Lesson 2: Practicing Songwriting):
If you understand pentatonic scales, you're ready for Lesson 46: Embellishing Tones.