Pentatonic scale

Pentatonic scale
The first two phrases of the melody from Stephen Foster's "Oh! Susanna" are based on the major pentatonic scale[1] About this sound Play .

A pentatonic scale is a musical scale with five notes per octave in contrast to a heptatonic (seven note) scale such as the major scale and minor scale. Pentatonic scales are very common and are found all over the world, including Celtic folk music, Hungarian folk music, West African music, African-American spirituals, Gospel music, American folk music, Jazz, American blues music, rock music, Sami joik singing, children's song, the music of ancient Greece[2][3] and the Greek traditional music and songs from Epirus, Northwest Greece, music of Southern Albania, folk songs of peoples of the Middle Volga area (such as the Mari, the Chuvash and Tatars), the tuning of the Ethiopian krar and the Indonesian gamelan, Philippine Kulintang, Native American music, melodies of Korea, Malaysia, Japan, China and Vietnam (including the folk music of these countries), the Andean music, the Afro-Caribbean tradition, Polish highlanders from the Tatra Mountains, and Western Impressionistic composers such as French composer Claude Debussy.

The ubiquity of pentatonic scales, specifically anhemitonic (without semitones) modes, can be attributed to the total lack of the most dissonant intervals between any pitches; there are neither any semitones (and therefore also no complementary major sevenths) nor any tritones. This means any pitches of such a scale may be played in any order or combination without clashing.


Types of pentatonic scales

Hemitonic and anhemitonic

Ethnomusicology commonly classifies pentatonic scales as either hemitonic or anhemitonic. Hemitonic scales contain one or more semitones and anhemitonic scales do not contain semitones. For example, a hemitonic pentatonic scale common in some areas of North and West Africa contains flatted 2nd, 3rd, and 6th scale degrees. Hence, this version of a C hemitonic scale would be C, D-flat, E-flat, G, A-flat, C. Another common version flats the 3rd and 6th scale degrees. Hence, this version of a C hemitonic scale would now be C, D, E-flat, G, A-flat, C.

Major pentatonic scale

Anhemitonic pentatonic scales can be constructed in many ways. One construction takes five consecutive pitches from the circle of fifths; starting on C, these are C, G, D, A, and E. Transposing the pitches to fit into one octave rearranges the pitches into the major pentatonic scale: C, D, E, G, A, C.

C major pentatonic scale
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Another construction works backward: It omits two pitches from a diatonic scale. If we were to begin with a C major scale, for example, we might omit the fourth and the seventh scale degrees, F and B. The remaining notes, C, D, E, G, and A, are transpositionally equivalent to the black keys on a piano keyboard: G-flat, A-flat, B-flat, D-flat, and E-flat.

G-flat major pentatonic scale

Omitting the third and seventh degrees of the C major scale obtains the notes for another transpositionally equivalent anhemitonic pentatonic scale: {F,G,A,C,D}. Omitting the first and fourth degrees of the C major scale gives a third anhemitonic pentatonic scale: {G,A,B,D,E}.

Minor pentatonic scale

Although various hemitonic pentatonic scales might be called minor, the term is most commonly applied to the relative minor pentatonic derived from the major pentatonic, using scale tones 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7 of the natural minor scale. The C minor pentatonic would be C, E-flat, F, G, B-flat. The A minor pentatonic, the relative minor of C, would be the same tones as C major pentatonic, starting on A, giving A, C, D, E, G. This minor pentatonic contains all three tones of an A minor triad.

A minor pentatonic scale
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Songs on the minor pentatonic scale include the Canadian folk song "Land of the Silver Birch". Because of their simplicity, pentatonic scales are often used to introduce children to music. Other popular children's songs are almost pentatonic. For example, the almost-pentatonic nature of the Gershwin lullaby "Summertime", is evident when it is played in the key of E-flat minor. In that key, the melody can be played almost entirely on the black keys of a piano, except just once per verse, where a white key is needed.

Piano keyboard.

Five black-key pentatonic scales of the piano

The five pentatonic scales found by running up the black keys on the piano are:

Mode ia a tuber Name(s) Black notes
Ratio White key equivalent
1 Minor Pentatonic E-G-A-B-D-E 30:36:40:45:54:60 A C D E G A
2 Major Pentatonic G-A-B-D-E-G 24:27:30:36:40:48 C D E G A C
3 Egyptian, Suspended A-B-D-E-G-A 24:27:32:36:42:48 D E G A C D
4 Blues Minor, Man Gong B-D-E-G-A-B 15:18:20:24:27:30 E G A C D E
5 Blues Major, Ritusen D-E-G-A-B-D 24:27:32:36:40:48 G A C D E G
(A minor seventh can be 7:4, 16:9, or 9:5; a major sixth can be 27:16 or 5:3. Both were chosen to minimize ratio parts.)


Proceeding by the principle that historically gives the Pythagorean diatonic and chromatic scales, stacking perfect fifths with 3:2 frequency proportions, the anhemitonic pentatonic scale can be tuned thus; 64:72:81:96:108. Considering the anhemitonic scale as a subset of a just diatonic scale, it is tuned thus; 24:27:30:36:40. Assigning precise frequency proportions to the pentatonic scales of most cultures is problematic.

The slendro anhemitonic scales of Java and Bali are said to approach, very roughly, an equally-tempered five note scale, but, in fact, their tunings vary dramatically from gamelan to gamelan.

Specially trained musicians among the Gogo people of Tanzania sing the fourth through ninth (and occasionally tenth) harmonics above a fundamental, which corresponds to the frequency proportions 4:5:6:7:8:9. Up to eight, this is an octaval scale of five notes, while nine is a major second above eight, and a major ninth above four. The 6:7:8 bit includes two septimal ratios rarely found on western staves.

Composer Lou Harrison has been one of the most recent proponents and developers of new pentatonic scales based on historical models.

Further pentatonic musical traditions

The major pentatonic scale is the basic scale of the music of China and the music of Mongolia. The fundamental tones (without meri or kari techniques) rendered by the 5 holes of the Japanese shakuhachi flute play a minor pentatonic scale. The traditional Japanese song "Sakura" uses a hemitonic pentatonic scale of the notes A-B-C-E-F. The Yo scale used in Japanese shomyo Buddhist chants and gagaku imperial court music is an anhemitonic pentatonic scale[4][dead link] shown below, which is the fourth mode of the major pentatonic scale.

D Yo scale
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In Javanese gamelan music, the slendro scale is pentatonic, with roughly equally spaced intervals (About this sound MIDI sample ). Another scale, pelog, has seven tones, but is generally played using one of several pentatonic subsets (known as pathets), which are roughly analogous to different keys or modes.

In Scottish music, the pentatonic scale is very common. The Great Highland bagpipe scale is considered three interlaced pentatonic scales. This is especially true for Piobaireachd which typically uses one of the pentatonic scales out of the nine possible notes. It also features in Irish traditional music, either purely or almost so. The minor pentatonic is used in Appalachian folk music. Blackfoot music is most often pentatonic or hexatonic.

In Andean music, the pentatonic scale is used substantially minor, sometimes major, and seldom in scale. Andean music preserves and develops a rich heritage of Incas' musical culture.[citation needed] In the most ancient genres of Andean music being performed without string instruments (only with winds and percussion), pentatonic melody is often leaded with parallel fifths and fourths, so formally this music is hexatonic. Hear example: About this sound Pacha Siku .

Jazz music commonly uses both the major and the minor pentatonic scales. For example, jazz pianists Art Tatum, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock), blues, and rock. Pentatonic scales are useful for improvisors in modern jazz, pop, and rock contexts because they work well over several chords diatonic to the same key, often better than the parent scale. For example, the blues scale is predominantly derived from the minor pentatonic scale, a very popular scale for improvisation in the realm of blues and rock alike.[5] About this sound Rock guitar solo almost all over B minor pentatonic For instance, over a C major triad (C, E, G) in the key of C major, the note F can be perceived as dissonant as it is a half step above the major third (E) of the chord. It is for this reason commonly avoided. Using the major pentatonic scale is an easy way out of this problem. The scale tones 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 (from the major pentatonic) are either major triad tones (1, 3, 5) or common consonant extensions (2, 6) of major triads. For the corresponding relative minor pentatonic, scale tones 1, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭7 work the same way, either as minor triad tones (1, ♭3, 5) or as common extensions (4, ♭7), as they all avoid being a half step from a chord tone.

The melodies of popular music sometimes contain the pentatonic scale. For example, in the songs "Ol' Man River" or "Sukiyaki". The pentatonic scale is also a staple ingredient of film music, where it is used as a shorthand to signal primitive or exotic contexts. With suitable changes in orchestration it can be used to depict an Oriental setting, a scene with American Indians, or a rustic hoedown. An example of film music in which both the East-Asian and American-Western elements of the story are suggested in the melody is the title theme for The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.

U.S. military cadences, or "jodies," which keep soldiers in step while marching or running, also typically use pentatonic scales.[6]

Hymns and other religious music sometimes use the pentatonic scale. For example, the melody of the hymn "Amazing Grace", one the most famous of all pieces of religious music.

Composers of Western classical music have used pentatonic scales for special effects. Frédéric Chopin wrote the right hand piano part of his Etude Op. 10 no. 5 in the major G-flat pentatonic scale, and therefore, the melody is played using only the black keys. Antonín Dvořák, inspired by the native American music and African-American spirituals he heard in America, made extensive use of pentatonic themes in his "New World" Symphony and his "American" Quartet. Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Turandot allude to the pentatonicism of Japan and China respectively. Maurice Ravel used a pentatonic scale as the basis for a melody in "Passacaille", the third movement of his Piano Trio, and as a pastiche of Chinese music in "Laideronette, Emperatrice des Pagodes", a movement from his Ma Mère l'Oye (Mother Goose). Béla Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin and Igor Stravinsky's The Nightingale contain many pentatonic passages. Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, also contains heavy influences from Oriental pentatonic scales, mixed in with an advanced Romantic harmonic idiom to form a rather unique sounding masterpiece.

The common pentatonic major and minor scales (C-D-E-G-A and C-Eb-F-G-Bb, respectively) are useful in modal composing, as both scales allow a melody to be modally ambiguous between their respective major (Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian) and minor (Aeolian, Phrygian, Dorian) modes (Locrian excluded). With either modal or non-modal writing, however, the harmonization of a pentatonic melody does not necessarily have to be derived from only the pentatonic pitches.

Use in education

The pentatonic scale plays a significant role in music education, particularly in Orff-based and Waldorf methodologies at the primary/elementary level. The Orff system places a heavy emphasis on developing creativity through improvisation in children, largely through use of the pentatonic scale. Orff instruments, such as xylophones, bells and other metallophones, use wooden bars, metal bars or bells which can be removed by the teacher leaving only those corresponding to the pentatonic scale, which Carl Orff himself believed to be children's native tonality.[7] Children begin improvising using only these bars, and over time, more bars are added at the teacher's discretion until the complete diatonic scale is being used. Orff believed that the use of the pentatonic scale at such a young age was appropriate to the development of each child, since the nature of the scale meant that it was impossible for the child to make any real harmonic mistakes.

In Waldorf education, pentatonic music is considered to be appropriate for young children due to its simplicity and unselfconscious openness of expression. Pentatonic music centered around intervals of the fifth is often sung and played in early childhood; progressively smaller intervals are emphasized within primarily pentatonic as children progress through the early school years. At around nine years of age the music begins to center around first folk music using a six-tone scale, and then the modern diatonic scales, with the goal of reflecting the children's developmental progress in their musical experience. Pentatonic instruments used include lyres, pentatonic flutes, and tone bars; special instruments have been designed and built for the Waldorf curriculum.[8]

Further reading

  • Pentatonicism from the Eighteenth Century to Debussy by Jeremy Day-O'Connell (University of Rochester Press 2007) – the first comprehensive account of the increasing use of the pentatonic scale in 19th century Western art music, including a catalogue of over 400 musical examples.
  • Tran Van Khe "Le pentatonique est-il universel? Quelques reflexions sur le pentatonisme", The World of Music 19, nos. 1–2:85–91 (1977). English translation p. 76–84
  • Kurt Reinhard, "On the problem of pre-pentatonic scales: particularly the third-second nucleus", Journal of the International Folk Music Council 10 (1958).
  • Yamaguchi, Masaya (New York: Charles Colin, 2002; Masaya Music, Revised 2006). Pentatonicism in Jazz: Creative Aspects and Practice. ISBN 0967635314
  • Jeff Burns, Pentatonic Scales for the Jazz-Rock Keyboardist (1997).

See also


  1. ^ Benward & Saker (2003). Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, p.37. Seventh Edition. ISBN 978-0-07-294262-0.
  2. ^ M. L. West, "Ancient Greek Music", Clarendon Press, 1994
  3. ^ A.-F. Christidis , "A History of Ancient Greek: From the Beginnings to Late Antiquity", Cambridge University Press, Rev. & Expanded Translation of the Greek Text edition, 2007
  4. ^ Japanese Music, Cross-Cultural Communication: World Music, University of Wisconsin – Green Bay[dead link]
  5. ^ "The Pentatonic and Blues Scale". How To Play Blues Guitar. 2008-07-09. Retrieved 2008-07-11. 
  6. ^ "NROTC Cadences". Retrieved 2010-09-22. 
  7. ^ Beth Landis; Polly Carder (1972). The eclectic curriculum in American music education: contributions of Dalcroze, Kodaly, and Orff. Washington D.C.: Music Educators National Conference. p. 82. ISBN 978-0940796034. 
  8. ^ Andrea Intveen, Musical Instruments in Anthroposophical Music Therapy with Reference to Rudolf Steiner’s Model of the Threefold Human Being

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • pentatonic scale — /pen teuh ton ik, pen /, Music. a scale having five tones to an octave, as one having intervals that correspond to the five black keys of a piano octave. [1860 65; PENTA + TONIC] * * * ▪ music also called  Five note Scale, or Five tone Scale,  … …   Universalium

  • pentatonic scale — noun a gapped scale with five notes; usually the fourth and seventh notes of the diatonic scale are omitted • Syn: ↑pentatone • Derivationally related forms: ↑pentatonic (for: ↑pentatone) • Hypernyms: ↑gapped scal …   Useful english dictionary

  • pentatonic scale — pen′ta•ton′ic scale′ [[t]ˈpɛn təˈtɒn ɪk, ˌpɛn [/t]] n. mad a musical scale of five tones …   From formal English to slang

  • pentatonic scale — noun a scale having five notes per octave …   Wiktionary

  • pentatonic scale — octave that includes only 5 notes, basic musical scale used in the Far East …   English contemporary dictionary

  • pentatonic scale — /pɛntəˌtɒnɪk ˈskeɪl/ (say pentuh.tonik skayl) noun 1. any of a class of scales, found in most music traditions, for which the octave is divided into five tones according to numerous patterns of intervals. 2. (in the Western chromatic system) any… …   Australian English dictionary

  • scale — scale1 scaleless, adj. scalelike, adj. /skayl/, n., v., scaled, scaling. n. 1. Zool. a. one of the thin, flat, horny plates forming the covering of certain animals, as snakes, lizards, and pangolins. b. one of the hard, b …   Universalium

  • scale — Synonyms and related words: Danish balance, Indian file, Lambert conformal projection, Mercator projection, Miller projection, Roman balance, Weightometer, accommodation ladder, adjust, aeronautical chart, alloy balance, amount, amplitude,… …   Moby Thesaurus

  • pentatonic — adjective Based on five tones. The middle movement is completely pentatonic, giving it an unusual sound. See Also: diatonic, pentatonic scale …   Wiktionary

  • pentatonic — adj. of or pertaining to a pentatonic scale; composed of five tones …   English contemporary dictionary

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