About Why the Pentatonic Scale is So Great

What is the pentatonic scale, and why is it so popular? Learn about the inner mechanics of this scale, discover why its notes sound so consonant and natural together, and explore how you can use it to create beautiful melodies.

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Christopher: Hello and welcome to the Musicality podcast. Today we are going to be talking about one of my favorite topics in music and musicality training which is the pentatonic scale. If you’ve been listening to this podcast for awhile you will be well familiar with the idea that we think the pentatonic scale is super useful and important for you to know about. Even though outside the world of the Musicality podcast it’s often see as niche scale just suitable for some genres or it’s kind of a beginners scale that you quickly move beyond.

Today in this episode we are going to be talking a little bit about why you might have underestimated the pentatonic scale, why it’s so valuable even for advanced musicians to spend a bit of time getting to know.
I’m joined on the episode by Adam Liette, our communications manager here at Musical U. And Andrew Bishko, our product manager and content editor. Say a quick hello Adam and Andrew and maybe introduce yourself and a line or two.

Adam: Hello. I’m Adam Liette, communications manager here at Musical U. I play the guitar and trumpet.

Andrew: Hello. I’m Andrew Bishko. I play woodwinds and keyboard instruments and especially love playing the accordion these days.

Christopher: Very nice. I always love it when a musician introduces themselves as playing a whole family of instruments. I think that makes a great impression compared to “well, I play the tenor sax.”

So, as I said the pentatonic scale packs a lot of punch for something that on the face of it is not a big deal. Why don’t we kickoff with Andrew? Maybe you could explain very briefly what is the pentatonic scale and what’s your perspective on why it’s something that we as musicians should be paying attention to?

Andrew: Well, the pentatonic scale is a five note scale plus the octave. Pentatonic scales are found throughout the world and most every musical culture. And the pentatonic scale actually seems to be hardwired in our brains. We have this video scattered across the site with Bobby McFerrin demonstrating this. It’s very natural almost neurological.

The major pentatonic scale that is most common in our culture is the bones of the other scales. You find it … those same notes in both the major and minor scales. Now, many people when you talk about learning the pentatonic scale and many instruments it’s kind of easy to play. And so they say “Oh, I know how to play the pentatonic scale. I know this pattern on my instrument” but there’s … the important thing about the pentatonic scale is not just to learn how to play it but really how to hear it.

The notes in the pentatonic scale are consonant with each other which means they all sound good together. And so when we are able to differentiate the steps in the pentatonic scale by ear we’ve accomplished something really deep musically that will help us to understand all the other scales.

In a way, it’s even more difficult to get the pentatonic scale by ear because all the notes sound so good together. None of them really pop out as, “that sound really strange here”. So, when you have that, not just on your fingers but in your ears. It’s super, super useful and expands your ability to hear music in any key and with any scale in a very powerful whale… way.

Christopher: I’m imaging a very powerful whale.

Yeah, I think that’s the critical point. Well, it was for me at least, which was that even though I learned how to play the pentatonic scale it wasn’t until I tackled it from an ear training perspective that I really understood kind of the point of it. Or what made it worth thinking about. And you know, in a nutshell, it is a five note scale or at least five or six note depending on how we’re counting. But those are notes from the major scale and we’ve talked on this podcast before about the major and minor scales and about different modes. And it took a while for it to sink in, to me, how important it is that the pentatonic scale is using notes from the major scale. It’s not just five random notes. You can come up with random five note scales all day long but the major pentatonic that we’re talking about and indeed the minor pentatonic is using a subset of that major scale which is everywhere in music in some way, shape or form.

And so just to be clear I’m going to briefly try and sing even though I haven’t warmed up or practiced but you know the pentatonic scale if we think of a major scale as DO-RE-MI-FA-SO-LA-TI-DO. The pentatonic would be DO-RE-MI-SO-LA-DO-LA-SO-MI-RE-DO.

And so you’re just pulling out that FA and that TI and as Andrew said just then those are the ones that jump out from a harmonic perspective. They’re the ones that sound a bit odd once you get used to hearing just those pentatonic notes that will kind of blend nicely together. And I think once you get that framework in your head. It’s incredibly easy to fill in that fourth and seventh, the FA and the TI, as extra notes that then jump out at you.

And so from an ear training perspective it’s a huge headstart in wrapping your head around that four major scale. There’s that bit of science that everyone always quotes that the brain can remember seven things at once and that’s why phone numbers are seven digits long. And, I don’t know, from a musical perspective I definitely found it to be the case that getting your ear around just those five notes DO-RE-MI-SO-LA or 12356 is dramatically easier than trying to tackle all seven or eight at once.

Adam, how about you? How did you first come across the pentatonic scale? Or how does it fit into your own musical life?

Adam: I’ll be honest I didn’t know it was a five-note scale until I’ve been playing them for years. I was a self-taught guitar player even though my background is very formal, classical background, conservatory music. When I started playing guitar, when I was playing guitar, to this day if you hand me a piece of standard notation and say “play this on your guitar.” I can’t do it. I never applied that skill of standard notation to my guitar playing because I grew up in the era of tab.

Those of you who are under 30 won’t remember this but we used to have these things call dial-up modems that would hog up the phone line at 14.4 kilobytes per second. And there was this disparate array of tablature music sites that you could just download these free tabs from. It was before ultimateguitar.com. And that’s how we would learn.

Me and my buddies we’re playing in my garage. We’d either learn by ear or by lead sheets that we’d find. But mostly it’s these self-made printed tabs. And then I started getting to wanting to solo. I was the lead guitarist in the band. Because I was, I don’t know, the better guitarist. For whatever that means when your thirteen.

And so I found this sheet in Guitar World, and was just the pentatonic scale up and down the fret board. And it was just these shapes, these patterns. And I would practice, going up and down the fret board, these patterns, one through five. And just by playing in the pattern, as long as you knew the key you were in, you could play anything. Absolutely anything. And it would sound right just because of what Andrew was saying: all these notes, all these pitches fit within the scale and they’re never going to be wrong.

And then from there you can start to add those passing and neighboring tones as you start to get a little more advanced. Start to get more confident in your ability to play and then as I started to continue to play and we were covering these solos, you know these songs by the bands at the time. I found that I needed the tab to learn the solo but sometimes I just look at the tab and I’d say “Oh, he’s just in pentatonic four.” So, I was able to quickly deconstruct the solos and I didn’t really need to go note by note. I needed to know the general pattern that he was playing in and from there I could … even if I wasn’t playing note for note. I could fairly confidently play through that guitar solo and no one in the crowd is going to know the difference and I would be very … I’d be able to play it well and feel good about the performance and it was great.

And even as we move on to advanced … being a more advanced musician these are fundamentals and so it’s something I continue to practice when I pick up the guitar. Every now and then you gotta go back to my pentatonics, make sure I still have this under my fingers because I still play it all the time. So, yeah, for me as a guitar player having never learned standard notation on the guitar, pentatonics were the only reason I became a good soloist. I think it was the reason at the time and really opened up a whole new world of playing for me.

Christopher: That’s super interesting. I sometimes make disparaging comments about guitarists and the pentatonic scale cause I think it is … you know there’s that cliché where you learn the pentatonic pattern or the minor pentatonic specifically and every solo just sounds like you’re playing a minor pentatonic scale.

But, obviously that is an oversimplification – it is everywhere in music. It’s as we touched on the skeleton and framework. A lot of musicians think of the major scale (or the minor scale depending on the key) as your framework. But underneath that you have this pentatonic shape, as it were, and I think tapping into that with your fingers and with your ear gives you a whole different level of understanding of what’s going on.

I think a couple of other cool things that I’ve learned over time are … to come back to my point about being easier to learn. The modes are a lot easier to wrap your head and your ears around with the pentatonic, you know, in the case of guitar like you were talking about Adam. Guitarist normally come across as the minor pentatonic and then they’re a bit surprised to realize they’ve kind of half memorized the shapes for the major pentatonic already. And that kind of clicks in the brain a little bit.

For me, I would never have imagined I’d be able to sing through the modes of the major scale that just seemed like an insurmountable task. Even once I was fine doing major and minor scales but actually I found that when I tried to singing the modes of the major pentatonic there were only five of them. They’re all pretty simple and I was able to get that into my ear within a day or two just kind of practicing singing them. And again it just gives you that headstart then when you want to sing the full mode you’ve got that pentatonic mode as a stepping stone. And the other thing I picked up over time when I was trying to kind of reconcile interval thinking with solfa thinking and again this is one that is relevant for guitarists in particular I think because there’s fret board patterns you’re always thinking about. Is it two steps up or three steps up and the shape of it?

It was really helpful with the pentatonic that there’s only really two types of interval in there. You know for the consecutive notes that were whole steps or there minor thirds and that’s it. DO-RE-MI, a couple of whole steps there, MI to SO minor third, SO to LA whole step, LA to DO again minor third. And that goes for the minor pentatonic that starts on the LA or the sixth note of the scale. It goes for all of the modes, as well. There’s just those two types of intervals in there. So again, if you’re approaching it from an ear training perspective and trying to figure out things by ear and so on. Restricting yourself to the pentatonic can be a huge headstart.
I think the last thing I wanted to touch on, Andrew I’m sure you have some thoughts on this too. Is that another place it really helps to have that simpler stepping stone is in the context of improvisation, you know Adam you were talking about guitar soloing. But for any musician we’ve already said a few times how the pentatonic scale: all the notes sound good.

And that is kind of a broad statement but the bottom line is if you’re playing over a major key chord progression or a not too wacky minor key chord progression. Playing the corresponding pentatonic scale is going to sound good all the time, any note from it. And that gives you an enormous cushion as a beginner improviser to know that you can pick any pitch from that scale and it’ll sound good. And suddenly you’re free to think about rhythm and dynamics and phrasing and all of these things without worrying, “Oh, I’m going to hit a wrong note and it’s going to clash with the chord.”

Andrew: I totally agree with you on that and I’ve been thinking about … I played a … A few years back there was a musician, a local musician, who was dying of cancer and we did a big benefit concert for him and a huge variety of amazing musicians came. And, I was … You know I’d been playing jazz and all kind of different things, and all kinds of crazy scales. But I did something where I was accompanying some people that were singing, putting counter melodies into a song. And a really amazing classical guitar player was there came up to me and said that he really appreciated the way I worked with my pentatonic scales and kept it so simple and so beautiful.

The melodies you can make with this scale are so beautiful. I wasn’t consciously doing it but it was right there. And it’s because exactly what you were saying there’s many times a beginner improvisor is freaking about out about what notes they’re going to play. “Am I going to play a wrong note?” But if there is no wrong notes, if all the notes sound good then you get into the meat of things. Like you were talking about that dynamics, the rhythm. Making something beautiful. And I think that’s such a valuable gift that we can enjoy. And sometimes it feels like it is a guilty pleasure because nothing to feel guilty about because it’s music and it sounds beautiful.

Christopher: One hundred percent. Well, I have a soft spot in my heart for the modes of the pentatonic scale and I think we’re going to have to do a separate dedicated episode on that topic because there are a bunch of really interesting things that come out of it. Including what you just touched on, Andrew, which is that this simple pattern can actually be really musically interesting.

So, I think we will save that as a topic for another day and wrap things up here.

I hope that our discussion has given you some fresh ideas about the pentatonic scale or at least encouraged you to spend a bit of time exploring it. Because it may take 30 seconds to learn how to play it in one key on your instrument but that is a tool that can be explored and developed and extended and applied throughout your musical life whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, pro, teacher, professional like, wherever you’re at and whatever instrument you play. The pentatonic scale probably has a lot more to offer you than you may have realized.

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