An Introduction to the Pentatonic Scale

Ever listen to a song and think, “Wow, they’re really killing it with those pentatonic scales?”

Probably not. But you’ve definitely admired the pentatonic scale at work if you’ve enjoyed songs like “Amazing Grace”, “Cotton Eye Joe”, or the ever classic song that gets stuck in your head for a month, “My Girl”. [1]

All to say, the pentatonic scale is central to how we write and understand modern music, and if you want to kick off your musical education, it’s a pretty good scale to start with. That’s why we’re here to tell you everything you need to know about the pentatonic scale.

What Is the Pentatonic Scale?

First, let’s cover some basic music theory: what is the pentatonic scale?

It’s simple. The pentatonic scale is a musical scale containing five different tones [2].

Yup. It’s actually that simple.

Because of this, the pentatonic scale is thought to represent an early stage of musical development, as it can be found in some form or another in most of the world’s music.

If you’ve never touched a piano key in your life, sit in front of a piano and play only the black keys one after another. Congratulations: you just played the sound of the pentatonic scale.

But don’t think that broad definition limits the pentatonic scale–it actually leaves a ton of wiggle room to do fun things on the keyboard.

The pentatonic scale is divided into two types:

  1. The minor pentatonic scale
  2. The major pentatonic scale

This is where things get interesting.

The Minor Pentatonic Scale

The minor pentatonic scale is used slightly more often than the major scale, which is why we’ll discuss it first.

You form the scale using a formula of whole and half steps, as follows: whole and half, whole, whole, whole and half, whole. In semitones, that’s 3-2-2-3-2. [3]

If you have absolutely no idea what the preceding paragraph meant, it’s simple. As with all fractions, a whole step is made of two half steps.

So, look at a piano keyboard. The distance between B and C is a half step because no other notes fall between them, but the distance between A and B is a whole step because a black key is situated between them, requiring a half step.

That’s important to know because if you know that formula, you can form any of the 12 minor pentatonic scales (yes, you read that right, 12 of them). Here they are:

  • A minor: A, C, D, E, G, A
  • Bb minor: Bb, Db, Eb, F, Ab, Bb
  • B minor: B, D, E, F#, A, B
  • C minor: C, Eb, F, G, Bb, C
  • C# minor: C#, E, F#, G#, B, C#
  • D minor: D, F, G, A, C, D
  • Eb minor: Eb, Gb, Ab, Bb, Db, Eb
  • Em: E, G, A, B, D, E
  • F minor: F, Ab, Bb, C, Eb, F
  • F# minor: F#, A, B, C#, E, F#
  • G minor: G, Bb, C, D, F, G
  • G# minor: G#, B, C#, D#, F#, G#

Luckily, the scales are easy to remember as long as you remember the note for which the scale is named and the formula of whole and half steps.

If you play the minor scale, you’ll notice it sounds bluesy. There’s a reason for that–the minor pentatonic scale is really just the blues scale with a note removed [4]. Here is one of the scales you may check, G minor scale.

The Major Pentatonic Scale

Then, there’s the major pentatonic scale.

You can form the major scale using your whole and half step pattern, which for this scale is whole, whole, whole and half, whole, whole and half. However, if you already know the major scale, there’s a much simpler way to learn the major pentatonic scale: drop the 4th and 7th notes of the major scale.

As with the minor pentatonic scale, you can form 12 different scales from the major pentatonic. If you look at a keyboard, it’s easy to figure out why–the scales are made from each of the 12 keys.

The 12 scales are:

  • C major: C, D, E, G, A, C
  • C# major: C#, D#, F, G#, A#, C#
  • Db major: Db, Eb, F, Ab, Bb, Db
  • D major: D, E, F#, A, B, D
  • Eb major: Eb, F, G, Bb, C, Eb
  • E major: E, F#, G#, B, C#, E
  • F major: F, G, A, C, D, F
  • F# major: F#, G#, A#, C#, D#, F#
  • Gb major: Gb, Ab, Bb, Db, Eb, Gb
  • G major: G, A, B, D, E, G
  • Ab major: Ab, Bb, C, Eb, F, Ab
  • A major: A, B, C#, E, F#, A
  • Bb major: Bb, C, D, F, G, Bb
  • B major: B, C#, D#, F#, G#, B

If you listen to a lot of country music, folk, or gospel, you’ll notice a similar sound when playing the major pentatonic scale. That’s because this scale is widely used in these types of music.

Why Does the Pentatonic Scale Sound Good?

You know how to play the pentatonic scales–good for you! But you music theorists out there are probably wondering a more basic question: on a technical level, why does the pentatonic scale sound good?

The pentatonic scale has an almost universally pleasant sound, no small feat for five little notes. It’s also easy to layer over other scales and chords.

The reason for this is actually quite simple. In the major scale, the 4th and 7th degrees form a tritone, which introduces suspense and tension via auditory dissonance. Basically, it makes the scale a little more interesting–imagine the buildup to a movie climax, but in music.

The pentatonic scale is universally pleasant because the 4th and 7th notes completely removed, eliminating all sense of tension. Instead, you get a nice, agreeable sound that works well with most other scales and chords.

Learn to Play All 88 Keys

Oh how far you’ll go when you learn the five notes of the pentatonic scale!

Ready to take your adventure a little further? After all, there’s a whole wide keyboard of 88 keys to explore. Next is to know about the chromatic scale piano.

If so, we’re here to help. Check out our blog for more tips, tricks, and ideas to further your piano education, from more informative articles on music theory and playing techniques to product reviews and more.

Stephanie Su
 

Started learning music when she was four years old, Stephanie is a music teacher and a music therapist who is highly proficient in Piano, Violin, Guitar, and Ukulele. She likes to learn, teach, and share her music playing experiences.

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