Pentatonic Scales – An Overview

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We have covered Pentatonic Scales before but they are always worth revisiting! If you are new, then dig right in!!

One of the first scales people learn are the pentatonic scales. Especially the Major and the Minor pentatonic. They are extremely useful and music created using them is found all over the globe. Their influence can be heard in most rock/blues songs and they are a guitarists’ go to scale!

The Pentatonic scale is a 5 note scale. Hence the name, Penta = 5 and Tonic = tone. Any group of 5 notes can be referred to as a pentatonic scale but for now we are going to stick to the ‘normal’ ones.

If you play the 5 black keys on a piano it is a Pentatonic scale. For this reason, it is sometimes called “the Black Key” scale. The division of the notes and the lack of any semitone intervals means that it is always harmonious as there is no chance of any discord. This however may be slightly limiting depending on your style.

In the key of C, the first Pentatonic Scale is made up as follows –

This is known as the Major Pentatonic scale. It is basically the major scale without the 4th and 7th, (removing the semitone intervals).

As with modes based on the Major scale that we looked at in earlier articles, we can build several modes from the Major Pentatonic scale, however the names aren’t set in stone, or the order! For ease, we will start with Major being the 1st mode.

If we start from the D our scale now becomes -

If we carry this on we end up with all 5 modes. Transposing them all into the key of C, as we did with the other modes, helps us contrast and compare them.

Scale Spellings (and some names that are used for each pentatonic mode) -

The 2 most commonly used pentatonic modes are:

They are extremely useful for improvising as they work well over diatonic chords. They avoid the clashes that sometimes happen when using the full scale over chords, some notes in the full scale don’t sound that nice!

For example, over a C chord (C, E, G) an F from the Major scale can clash as it is a semitone above the 3rd of the chord. By using the Major Pentatonic scale this is avoided. If you are skilled enough and know what chord you are playing you can obviously just ignore that note for the chord, but using the Pentatonic gives you impunity!!

Have a go at playing them and comparing their sounds!!

Until next week.....

-Duncan Richardson - MU Columnist

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