A pentatonic scale is a musical scale with five notes per octave, in contrast to the heptatonic scale originated in medieval Europe that has seven notes per octave (such as the major scale and minor scale).
There are two types of pentatonic scales: those with semitones (hemitonic) and those without (anhemitonic).
Hemitonic and anhemitonic
Musicology 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, in Japanese music the anhemitonic yo scale is contrasted with the hemitonic in scale.) Hemitonic pentatonic scales are also called "ditonic scales", because the largest interval in them is the ditone (e.g., in the scale C–E–F–G–B–C, the interval found between C–E and G–B). This should not be confused with the identical term also used by musicologists to describe a scale including only two notes.
Major pentatonic scale
Anhemitonic pentatonic scales can be constructed in many ways. The major pentatonic scale may be thought of as a gapped or incomplete major scale. However, the pentatonic scale has a unique character and is complete in terms of tonality. 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.
Another construction works backward: It omits two pitches from a diatonic scale. If one were to begin with a C major scale, for example, one might omit the fourth and the seventh scale degrees, F and B. The remaining notes then makes up the major pentatonic scale: C, D, E, G, and A.
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.
The black keys on a piano keyboard comprise a G-flat major (or equivalently, F-sharp major) pentatonic scale: G-flat, A-flat, B-flat, D-flat, and E-flat, which is exploited in Chopin's black key étude.
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. It may also be considered a gapped blues scale. The C minor pentatonic is C, E-flat, F, G, B-flat. The A minor pentatonic, the relative minor of C, comprises the same tones as the C major pentatonic, starting on A, giving A, C, D, E, G. This minor pentatonic contains all three tones of an A minor triad.
Five black-key pentatonic scales of the piano
|Mode number||Name(s)||Base scale
|On C||Black keys||Ratios (just)||White-key transpositions|
|1||Minor pentatonic||Natural minor
(Omit 2 6)
|C E♭ F G B♭||E♭-G♭-A♭-B♭-D♭-E♭||30:36:40:45:54:60||A C D E G A,|
D F G A C D or
E G A B D E
|2||Major pentatonic||Major heptatonic
(Omit 4 7)
|C D E G A||G♭-A♭-B♭-D♭-E♭-G♭||24:27:30:36:40:48||C D E G A C|
F G A C D F or
G A B D E G
|3||Egyptian, suspended||C D F G B♭||A♭-B♭-D♭-E♭-G♭-A♭||24:27:32:36:42:48||D E G A C D|
G A C D F G or
A B D E G A
|4||Blues minor, Man Gong (慢宮調)||C E♭ F A♭ B♭||B♭-D♭-E♭-G♭-A♭-B♭||15:18:20:24:27:30||E G A C D E|
A C D F G A or
B D E G A B
|5||Blues major, Ritsusen (律旋), yo scale||C D F G A||D♭-E♭-G♭-A♭-B♭-D♭||24:27:32:36:40:48||G A C D E G|
C D F G A C or
D E G A B D
(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.)
Naturals in that table are not the alphabetic series A to G without sharps and flats: Naturals are reciprocals of terms in the Harmonic series (mathematics), which are in practice multiples of a fundamental frequency. This may be derived by proceeding with the principle that historically gives the Pythagorean diatonic and chromatic scales, stacking perfect fifths with 3:2 frequency proportions (C–G–D–A–E). Considering the anhemitonic scale as a subset of a just diatonic scale, it is tuned thus: 20:24:27:30:36 (A–C–D–E–G = 5⁄3–1⁄1–9⁄8–5⁄4–3⁄2). Assigning precise frequency proportions to the pentatonic scales of most cultures is problematic as tuning may be variable.
For example, the slendro anhemitonic scale and its modes of Java and Bali are said to approach, very roughly, an equally-tempered five-note scale, but their tunings vary dramatically from gamelan to gamelan.
Composer Lou Harrison has been one of the most recent proponents and developers of new pentatonic scales based on historical models. Harrison and William Colvig tuned the slendro scale of the gamelan Si Betty to overtones 16:19:21:24:28 (1⁄1–19⁄16–21⁄16–3⁄2–7⁄4). They tuned the Mills gamelan so that the intervals between scale steps are 8:7–7:6–9:8–8:7–7:6 (1⁄1–8⁄7–4⁄3–3⁄2–12⁄7–2⁄1 = 42:48:56:63:72)
Use of pentatonic scales
Pentatonic scales occur in many musical traditions:
- Peruvian Chicha cumbia
- Celtic folk music
- English folk music
- German folk music
- Nordic folk music
- Hungarian folk music
- Croatian folk music
- West African music
- African-American spirituals
- Gospel music
- Bluegrass music
- American folk music
- Music of Ethiopia
- Rock music
- Sami joik singing
- Children's song
- The music of ancient Greece
- Music of southern Albania
- Folk songs of peoples of the Middle Volga region (such as the Mari, the Chuvash and Tatars)
- The tuning of the Ethiopian krar and the Indonesian gamelan
- Philippine kulintang
- Native American music, especially in highland South America (the Quechua and Aymara), as well as among the North American Indians of the Pacific Northwest
- Most Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic music of Siberia and the Asiatic steppe is written in the pentatonic scale
- Melodies of China, Korea, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Japan, and Vietnam (including the folk music of these countries)
- Andean music
- Afro-Caribbean music
- Polish highlanders from the Tatra Mountains
- Western Impressionistic composers such as French composer Claude Debussy.
In classical music
Further pentatonic musical traditions
The major pentatonic scale is the Raag Bhoopali in Hindustani classical music of India and basic scale of the music of China and the music of Mongolia as well as many Southeast Asian musical traditions such as that of the Karen people (whose music has sometimes been described as sounding "Scottish"). The fundamental tones (without meri or kari techniques) rendered by the five holes of the Japanese shakuhachi flute play a minor pentatonic scale. The yo scale used in Japanese shomyo Buddhist chants and gagaku imperial court music is an anhemitonic pentatonic scale shown below, which is the fourth mode of the major pentatonic scale.
Ethiopian music uses a distinct modal system that is pentatonic, with characteristically long intervals between some notes. As with many other aspects of Ethiopian culture and tradition, tastes in music and lyrics are strongly linked with those in neighboring Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti and Sudan.
In Scottish music, the pentatonic scale is very common. Seumas MacNeill suggests that the Great Highland bagpipe scale with its augmented fourth and diminished seventh is "a device to produce as many pentatonic scales as possible from its nine notes". Roderick Cannon explains these pentatonic scales and their use in more detail, both in Piobaireachd and light music. It also features in Irish traditional music, either purely or almost so. The minor pentatonic is used in Appalachian folk music. Blackfoot music most often uses anhemitonic tetratonic or pentatonic scales.
In Andean music, the pentatonic scale is used substantially minor, sometimes major, and seldom in scale. 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:
Jazz music commonly uses both the major and the minor pentatonic scales. Pentatonic scales are useful for improvisers 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 realms of blues and rock alike.
U.S. military cadences, or jodies, which keep soldiers in step while marching or running, also typically use pentatonic scales.
The common pentatonic major and minor scales (C-D-E-G-A and C-E♭-F-G-B♭, 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.
Role in education
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.
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 on 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 on 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.
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