The pentatonic scale has been around for centuries. It features 5 notes per octave compared to 7 notes per octave found in most other scales, such as the natural major and minor. Numerous ancient civilizations independently created their own pentatonic scales, and it’s still one of the most useable sounds in all of music!
What is a pentatonic scale?
The pentatonic is simply a 5-note scale. It works so incredibly well that it exists in nearly every culture’s music around the globe. In fact, rudimentary instruments estimated to be as many as 50,000 years old were tuned to the pentatonic scale.
It’s often one of the first scales beginner guitar or piano students learn. On guitar, it has a simple repeating pattern across all 6 strings that’s great for students. As old as it is, this scale is still as useful as ever in all sorts of different music.
For the purposes of this blog — and as an introduction to music theory — we’ll focus on the major and minor pentatonic.
- Related: Finding Chords That Go Together
Let’s look at all 7 notes found in good ol’ C major for the basis of this discussion:
- C – D – E – F – G – A – B
- 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7
Playing through C major, you would hit each of these notes in sequence — scale degrees 1 (C) through 7 (B). To form the major pentatonic, simply remove scale degrees 4 and 7 — F and B.
- C – D – E – G – A
- 1 – 2 – 3 – 5 – 6
These five notes form the C major pentatonic scale. What makes the major pentatonic so useable is that is has a fairly straight-forward, pleasant sound. It’s easy to create melodies or solo over chord progressions due to its simplicity.
One of the reasons the major pentatonic sounds so good is because it removes two very specific scale degrees. In the natural major scale, the 4th and 7th degrees together form a tritone. Ecclesiastical folks in the late Middle Ages called tritones the ‘Devil’s interval,’ or diabolus in musica — Latin for ‘the Devil in music.’ It sounds evil!
More accurately, tritones create tension and dissonance — even in the happy-sounding major scale. By removing this tension, the pentatonic scale has a wholly pleasing quality to it.
Because it shares all of the same notes, we’ll look at the relative minor of C major to introduce the minor pentatonic scale. This is the A minor scale:
- A – B – C – D – E – F – G
- 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7
Removing scale degrees 2 and 6 from the natural minor forms its pentatonic:
- A – C – D – E – G
- 1 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 7
The minor pentatonic is one of the most important scales beginners can learn as they start practicing improvisation. Especially if you play blues, the minor pentatonic is indispensable.
The Pentatonic Scale in Music
More than just a shrunken major or minor scale, what the pentatonic removes it what gives it its power. It’s a fundamental scale in that its reliable in two very important ways:
1. It’s versatile
You can play the pentatonic over a major chord progression; or also a minor chord progression; or even a classic 12-bar blues progression. It sounds good over practically anything because all of its notes are consonant. Remember, we took out the dissonant tritone!
Though we haven’t talked about modes yet, you can also play the major pentatonic over all 3 major modes: Ionian (natural minor), Lydian, and Mixolydian. Again, the pentatonic is one of the most versatile improvising tools musicians have.
2. It’s easy to play
As a guitarist or keyboard player, you just have to memorize simple patterns which are easily transposed to any key. On guitar, the pentatonic scale is normally played 2-notes-per-string in repeated patterns.
Beginners can take advantage of it right away since it’s easy to play and sounds good anywhere.
Five Notes are All You Need
Both major and minor pentatonic scales have a special place in practically every genre of mainstream modern music. The general usefulness of the pentatonic scale makes it absolutely essential to understand and practice.
Learn the patterns on your instrument, and start taking advantage of one of the most important scales in all of music!