The Pentatonic Scale might just be the most usable, recognisable and widely appreciated scale of all. Enter to find out how to understand, play and use the pentatonic scale to amaze and acquire. Mad Piano Skills, that is.
Hi Guys! How’s it going?
Ready to dive into a highly intriguing concept? A scale that is so widely used, so well known and so easy on the ears that being capable of using it – fully understanding it – is likely to notch you up to a whole new level?
Enter the Pentatonic Scale
Video Lesson below the text
Apart from regular major and minor scales, there’s a few more scales that we can use for playing things like licks, riffs, melodies and solos.
One of the most commonly known, -used and recognised is the Pentatonic Scale. It also happens to be one of the easiest. Win-win.
Before we dive into some hands-on, tangible examples on how to use this “most common dialect” in music’s language – let’s make sure we’re on the same page on what a “scale” actually is. And why you need to know.
In this post I’m going to go into the more “philosophical” level of “what scales are.” This means I assume you are familiar with the technical level of how they are constructed and know all the major and minor scales.
Scales | Their use and (mis)conception
A scale, in my mind, is like a ballpark. A dialect, if you will, that at a specific point in music, is the one that is “correct.” The one that we’re speaking. The one that’s being understood. The one that sounds right.
Let’s say we have a chord progression C, G, Am, F.
These chords are made up of all white notes, which is one way to approach and determine that the key of this progression is C. We’re playing “in C.”
Or, in other words: “we’re speaking the dialect of C.” Nobody – except me – calls it that. But it’s an illustrative analogy.
Basically what this means is that, when thinking about playing fills, connecting chords or even playing melody lines, it’s the white notes you’ll be using – the scale of C.
Are there exceptions? Most definitely. Always. That’s the beauty of music. Rules can and will be bent far beyond breaking.
However, adapting this mindset, being aware of your “playing field” – the key you’re playing in and its corresponding scale – and explaining this in terms of which major or minor scale is being spoken – which’ notes are “allowed” – is in fact the foundation to understanding and handling the musical language with freedom.
C, G, Am, F -> Key = C. Scale = C major. We’re playing with the white notes.
Derivatives | Stripping it down
“Penta” means “five,” which refers to the amount of different notes that are in this type of scale. Pentatonic scales are a derivative of major / minor scales. As you might, or might not know, “regular” major and minor scales have seven different notes.
To get to their derived pentatonic scale – in this case say we stick to our example in C and want to figure out C pentatonic – we have to omit two notes, being the 4 and the 7. This leaves us with:
1, 2, 3, 5, 6
This is the major pentatonic scale of C, which is the same as the minor pentatonic of its parallel Am.
As you see, in A minor pentatonic, the numbers have shifted accordingly, to reflect that in Am “a” is now the 1. Do see that, just like the minor scales that consist out of exactly the same notes as their major parallel, we are using the exact same notes as for C major pentatonic?
We just “started” on another note, but in practice, that’s actually not all that important.
C major pentatonic = A minor pentatonic.
The selection of just these five notes results in the Pentatonic scales having a very accommodating, pleasant and easy-to-digest sound to them in whatever order the scale is played. This is because there are not “dissonant” intervals between any of its notes.
“Regular” major and minor scales include minor second intervals (in C and Am – between “e and “f” and between “b” and “c”) that – on their own – sound dissonant.
To clarify: when playing the scale of the key of the song over its chord progression, it sounds correct, good, nice even, when the notes of that major/ minor scale are played in succession. However, when – for example – on the G chord, one would linger between “e” and “f” – the dissonant minor second interval that on a G chord are also not actual chord notes from the harmony – and does not resolve to “g” or “d,” this sounds less easily digestible on the ears.
Since the pentatonic scale however, doesn’t have any of these dissonant intervals (the minor second intervals are left out), playing its notes – in any order – always sounds “right” and has a very neutral, common sound.
This easy-on-the-ears feature has caused it to be the most widely used scale in music.
In fact, it’s so commonly used – in styles ranging from Pop to Soul, Funk, Blues, Jazz and even traditional styles of music, that it is quite literally “baked” into our hearing as sounding “pleasing,” or “correct,” even.
Here’s a cool example video exemplifying exactly how used we are to hearing (using) the pentatonic scale.
Turning Blue | Blurring the line between major and minor
To “blues-up” the pentatonic scale, there is a note that we can add to it, effectively transforming it to what is called “the blues scale.”
Adding the so called “blue note,” (which, for kicks, I indicated in yellow in the image above ;)) means adding the minor third to the major pentatonic, which corresponds to adding the tritone (#4 or b5) to its parallel minor pentatonic relative.
The blues scale (a “hexatonic” or “six-note” scale) is also a very common scale, especially used for creating licks, solo-phrases and melodic lines (the latter especially in blues and derived styles of music).
Playing tip: although it might sound awfully cool to pound that blue note ‘till your fingers turn the color that is its name, it’s a beginners trap. Overusing it will not make you sound cool, but in stead makes you sound blunt.
Use it, but sparsely.
As you might have noticed, using the blues scale “blurs” the boundaries between major and minor quite a bit and is one of the first steps of stepping outside of our regular ballpark – the major / minor scale of the tonic.
Although there is a lot more to be experimented with when playing with pentatonic scales and their derivatives, I’m going to leave it at this – in the hope that this will be manageable and clear.
In later posts we will explore, experiment and take these things to other, whole new levels. Ah. Music…
Hope this helped guys! Please leave a comment with thoughts, questions, or just a simple “hi” 🙂
PENTATONIC SCALE | WHAT IT IS & HOW TO USE IT