Category Archives: Ear Training

The Power of the Pentatonic Scale

“Pentatony is an introduction to world literature: it is the key to many foreign musical literatures, from the ancient Gregorian chant, through China to Debussy.” – Zoltan Kodály

Any music educator who has taught songs or musician who has improvised melodies using the pentatonic scale knows the power of the five tones. The five-tone pentatonic scale has been called the most universal of scales, because of its substantial use in music cultures around the world, including West African music, Sami joik singing, Hungarian folk music, Indonesian music, Appalachian folk music, Celtic folk music, Chinese music, and Andean music, to only mention a few. The pentatonic major and minor scales are commonly used in jazz, blues and rock music, and the blues scale predominantly derived from the minor pentatonic scale. In classical music, the pentatonic scale was used by Western impressionistic composers including Claude Debussy.

In this interesting video from the World Science Festival 2009 Bobby McFerrin uses audience participation and the pentatonic scale to demonstrate neural programming, as part of the event “Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus”. At the end of his “pentatonic brain hacking” McFerrin mentions that regardless of where he is, anywhere, every audience gets it. Aside from the fact that the pentatonic scale seems to be used in music cultures around the world, interesting questions arise. Why does it seem that the pentatonic scale is universal? Is our brain programmed to “think pentatonic”?

Perhaps it is. A Belgian research found the pentatonic scale could be heard in the vocal interaction between babies and their mothers. And whoever has listened to children on a playground, can recognize the so-mi / la-so-mi patterns in their chants. This natural use of the pentatonic scale by children lead music educators including Zoltan Kodály and Carl Orff to largely use the pentatonic scale for pitch-matching and improvisation in their music education approaches. Not only babies and children seem to gravitate towards pentatony though: military cadences, used to keep soldiers in step while marching or running, also typically use pentatonic scales.

So where did the pentatonic scale come from? Doug Goodkin writes in Play, Sing, & Dance – an Introduction to Orff Schulwerk (2002):

“Some people (Leonard Bernstein among them) have theorized that the universal quality of the pentatonic scale comes from a subconscious sounding of the overtone series. A string produces a sound based not only on the vibration of the whole string, but also on vibrations of that string in halves, thirds, etc. Each division produces a soft, but audible tone called the overtone that becomes a part of the texture of the fundamental tone. This is not only true of strings, but any vibrating body, be it a tube of air or metal gong or drumskin.”

I find it interesting to theorize about the universal quality of the pentatonic scale or about our brains being wired for music, but what counts for me in the end is that it actually works. No matter what age, no matter what cultural background, be it with people who are completely new to music/singing or with music professionals…the pentatonic scale can always be used.  In my singing workshops I often use pentatonic songs from various cultures and music styles, and base a lot of my vocal improvisation and ear training exercises exercises on the pentatonic scale or pentatonic modes – often combined with accompanying drones or ostinato melodies.

Some musicians and music educators dismiss the pentatonic scale as sounding one-dimensional. Before you dismiss these powerful five notes, try exploring beyond the major pentatonic scale. Also, in honest my opinion, whether a scale sounds one-dimensional or not does not only have to do with the scale itself. It also has to do with how we use our instrument (in my case, the voice). A pentatonic improvisation can either sound like a “somewhat boring children’s song” or “sound like magic” depending on how the singer uses  rhythm/timing, sound color, volume, etc. and on how the accompanying vocals are built up. Perhaps more about that another time. For now, let yourself be inspired by Bobby McFerrin and his “pentatonic brain hacking”!

By Katja Maria Slotte