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Pentatonic scale

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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. 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, American folk music, Jazz, American blues music and rock music, Sami joik singing, children's songs, the music of ancient Greece[2][3] and the Greek traditional music and songs from Epirus, Northwest Greece and the music of Southern Albania, the tuning of the Ethiopian krar and the Indonesian gamelan, Philippine Kulintang, melodies of Korea, Malaysia, Japan, China, India and Vietnam (including the folk music of these countries), the Andean music, the Afro-Caribbean tradition, Polish highlanders from the Tatra Mountains, and Western Classical composers such as French composer Claude Debussy. The pentatonic scale is also used on the Great Highland Bagpipe.


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 degrees (hence, if the scale begins in C, it will contain a D-flat, E-flat, and A-flat, plus a G-natural).

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 popular[citation needed] 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.

Five black key pentatonic scales of the piano

Piano keyboard.

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

Mode Name(s) Black notes Intervals White key equivalent
1 minor pentatonic E-G-A-B-D-E P1, m3, P4, P5, m7, P8 A C D E G
2 Major pentatonic G-A-B-D-E-G P1, M2, M3, P5, M6, P8 C D E G A
3 Egyptian, Suspended A-B-D-E-G-A P1, M2, P4, P5, m7, P8 A B D E G
4 Blues Minor, Man Gong B-D-E-G-A-B P1, m3, P4, m6, m7, P8 E G A C D
5 Blues Major, Ritusen D-E-G-A-B-D P1, M2, P4, P5, M6, P8 D E G A B
(P=perfect, m=minor, M=Major)


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: 1:9/8:81/64:3/2:27/16. Considering the anhemitonic scale as a subset of a just diatonic scale, it is tuned thus: 1:9/8:5/4:3/2:5/3. 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 do necessarily accurately correspond to the frequency proportions 4:5:6:7:8:9, but this is not a scale in the western sense because these pitches are not found within a single octave and could not be put into a single octave with this manner of performance. 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, and the scale can be heard as the first notes of the verse of Don McLean's hit song Vincent (Starry, Starry Night). 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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The slendro scale used in Javanese gamelan music 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.

The pentatonic scale is very common in Scottish music. 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.

The pentatonic scale (substantially minor, sometimes major and seldom in scale) is used in Andean music which 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 .

Both the major and the minor pentatonic scales are commonly used in jazz (notably by 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]. 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 pentatonic scale occurs in the melodies of popular music: for example in "Ol' Man River" or "Sukiyaki". It 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," used to keep soldiers in step while marching or running, also typically use pentatonic scales.[6].

The pentatonic scale also occurs in hymns and other religious music. The hymn "Amazing Grace", arguably the most famous of all pieces of religious music, has a melody set to the notes of the pentatonic major scale.

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.

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 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. UK based schools started using a hank drum, an instrument demonstrating the Pentatonic scale, in Summer 2008.[citation needed]

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).
  • 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. 

External links

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Pentatonic scale". Allthough most Wikipedia articles provide accurate information accuracy can not be guaranteed.

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