Five Notes Will Change Your Life: Pentatonic Scales

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Scales, scales, scales! Just how many scales do we really need to know? Imagine if there was one scale to rule them all. This scale is the pentatonic, or five-note scale. Learn how to build the pentatonic scale in any key, and layer it over chords and other scales.

What is a Pentatonic Scale?

By definition, a pentatonic scale contains five pitches per octave. A pentatonic scale can be formed in any major or minor key, but for the purposes of this article, we will focus on major pentatonic scales, which contain the five most commonly used pitches in simple songs and folk melodies. To derive the major pentatonic scale from the major scale, simply remove the 4th and 7th degrees, which leaves you with five notes per octave.

The scale has a very distinct, pleasant sound that works great layered over many chords and other scales. As stated above, it contains the most commonly used pitches in many popular songs. Its lack of half-steps contribute to its distinct sound, as compared to a major or minor scale.

Who Uses Pentatonic Scales Now?

The musical concepts of this traditional and folk music formed the basis of genres such as jazz, gospel, and bluegrass, as well as modern folk music. As these styles evolved into modern blues and rock, the pentatonic scale remained as an integral part of those genres.

Today, it’s as ubiquitous as ever, and for good reason; the pentatonic scale offers a fantastic improvisational framework for blues, rock, and beyond! In modern jazz, you’ll often hear amazing pentatonic solos whipped out by pianists, flautists and saxophonists.

What Can You Do With the Pentatonic Scale?
A quick refresher: the major pentatonic scale contains five notes instead of the usual seven per octave, with the 4th and 7th degrees of the major scale removed.
So, you may ask, if it’s just a “condensed” major scale, why use the pentatonic scale at all?

Turns out, the subtraction of these degrees is exactly what gives the pentatonic its power. Here are just some of the reasons you will want to use it:

1) Versatility in improvisation

You can play the pentatonic scale over a major chord progression – but also a minor chord progression, or a classic 12-bar blues progression. Because its notes are all consonant, it sounds good over nearly everything; try playing the pentatonic scale over a backing track, and you’ll see what we mean!

2) Easy To Play

Memorize certain patterns on your fretboard and keyboard, and you can easily transpose them into any key; see our pentatonic scale tabs below.

3) Play over modes

The church modes are either major or minor. The major modes are Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian, and all contain scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. In other words, the major modes all contain a major pentatonic scale, making it a perfect scale choice for writing or improvising in these modes, or playing over a modal backing track.

With its myriad of uses and its special place in nearly every genre of mainstream modern music, the pentatonic scale’s usefulness cannot be overstated. Learn its patterns on your instrument, and most importantly, practice singing along with solfege syllables to cement the pitch pattern. Producing the scale with the corresponding solfege helps connect the sounds of each scale degree with a syllable, making it more likely that you will instantly recognize the notes of a scale because your brain will process them based on their solfege identity.


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Five Notes Will Change Your Life: Pentatonic Scales