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What does pentatonic mean?
How is this different from other major and minor scales?
Discover the powerful simplicity behind pentatonic scales.
If you’ve spent time studying or playing music, you may have heard of the pentatonic scale. It comes up over and over again because of its wide usage across genres.
But why is it so popular?
The pentatonic scale has a neutral, consonant sound, which makes it an easy choice for writing melodies and for improvisation. Pentatonic scales are very similar to their respective heptatonic counterparts (traditional major and minor scales), but with some small changes that make a big difference…
An Overview Of The Pentatonic Scale
Let’s break it down first by etymology.
“Penta” means five, and “tonic” means tone. So the pentatonic scale is a scale of five tones. Which five tones though?
Well, that depends on which pentatonic scale you’re talking about. There are actually many pentatonic scales that arose independently from different cultures. While we will be looking at a few different pentatonic scales here, we focus mainly on the western major pentatonic scale due to its familiarity.
This particular scale can be found in a ton of music. Here are some popular songs that incorporate the pentatonic scale, either entirely or in part:
With such a broad range of applications, it’s easy to see why you’d want to learn more about this scale!
How Do You Construct The Major Pentatonic Scale?
Here is the major pentatonic scale, starting from C2.
In terms of semitones, the intervals between each note are 2, 2, 3, 2, 2. Usually, with heptatonic (major, minor) scales we can count in terms of whole and half steps (2 and 1 semitones, respectively). But with pentatonic scales we have only five notes per octave, so we end up with bigger interval jumps.
Knowing this formula, you can construct a pentatonic scale in any key! Just pick a root note and keep the note intervals the same.
Here is the same pentatonic scale starting on root E.
Other Ways to Memorize the Pentatonic Scale
You may have noticed that the pentatonic scale is actually just the “regular” major scale with the scale degrees 4 and 7 taken out. This is an important point to be further discussed momentarily.
You probably know that most popular songs are based on the 7-tone (or heptatonic) major and minor scales. So why the fuss about another scale?
Let’s revisit the construction of the pentatonic scale from the heptatonic major scale, with C major as the example. Let’s start by looking at the full C major scale…
Notice the tritone labeled between F and B – the two notes that are omitted in a C Major pentatonic scale. The tritone, which was once known as the devil’s interval for its dissonance, creates tension. And its omission from the scale means a neutral, consonant sound.
The F is also one semitone away from the E, and the B is one semitone away from the tonic C. Semitones, similar to the tritone, create tension. Therefore, the absence of the semitone intervals means there will be less overall tension.
This makes writing with the pentatonic scale easier because you don’t need to worry as much about dissonant intervals in the melody.
This is why musicians often improvise with the pentatonic scale as well. With little time to think about what note comes next, it helps to have a map of passable tones.
This construction from the major heptatonic scale also provides an intuitive rule: the pentatonic scale will sound good over the root chord from which it was derived. For example, a C major pentatonic scale sounds good over a C major chord.
There are three major triads in the major scale: I, IV, and V. So when you land on an IV chord, the corollary is that the pentatonic scale based on scale degree 4 would sound good, and on V, a pentatonic based on degree 5.
In the key of C, that means when you land on the IV chord (F Major), try playing with an F major pentatonic scale, and on a V chord (G Major), try the G major pentatonic.
There are also other ways to utilize the pentatonic scale, depending on the genre and mood. For instance, you could try playing a pentatonic scale based on the fifth, which would give a brighter sound.
If you were playing a C major chord, the fifth would be G, so you could utilize the G major pentatonic scale over a C triad. This scale (G-A-B-D-E) is a good choice because it contains the E, which gives the C chord its major sound, so this chord quality would be emphasized. Let’s listen to a C major chord with a G major pentatonic playing over it.
Returning to our C major pentatonic scale, if we simply start this same scale from A (the 5th and final step), it becomes the A minor pentatonic scale.
The natural minor scale is also constructed from the major scale in this way: the A natural minor scale starts on the 6th scale degree of C major and uses the same notes.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the same basic rule for minor pentatonic scales holds true: they will sound good over the root chord from which they were derived. So an A minor pentatonic scale will sound good over an A minor chord.
The Blues Scale
The blues scale can be constructed from the minor pentatonic scale with the addition of one note between the 3rd and 4th scale degrees.
This scale has been used not just in blues but also in rock and jazz – both of which are direct descendants of blues.
Eastern Pentatonic Scales
There are also several popular Eastern pentatonic scales. These scales use microtones not available in the western tempered scale, which divides an octave into 12 equal semitones.
You may recognize a few of these scales, whether from a film or from your own travels abroad. Now you can also try using them in your compositions!
Q: What are the CAGED patterns for guitar?
A: These are a popular set of 5 guitar finger patterns / chords on the fretboard that make use of the pentatonic scale. This system is a logical, straightforward approach to understanding how to navigate the fretboard and stay in key. Critics of the CAGED system say it is too simplistic, but it’s not without merit for certain styles of playing, so your mileage may vary here.
Q: Why use the pentatonic scale instead of the heptatonic scale?
A: For the same reason you pick any scale over another. Pentatonic scales have a “flavor” just like other major, minor, or blues scales.
The pentatonic scale can be particularly useful for writing melodies because it produces a relatively harmonious sound. The examples that we have looked at in this article use the pentatonic scale for the melody and heptatonic for harmonization.
Q: What can the pentatonic scale teach us about music?
A: Studied in conjunction with the heptatonic scale, the pentatonic scale primarily teaches us about dissonance. Both in terms of how it is constructed, and how it can be avoided. It also serves as a first step toward exploring other scales besides major and minor scales. For younger students and beginners, pentatonic scales are a great starting point for improvisation because of how easy they are to play.
If you want to read more about scales, chords, or just brush up on your music theory, we’ve got you covered.
Whether you consider yourself a musician, songwriter, or producer, you ought to read (and bookmark!) some of our other articles aimed at improving your understanding of music.