An Introduction to Pentatonic Scales
After you have mastered the major and minor scales on your instrument of choice, it’s time to move to the next level. The next step for many players is to learn pentatonic scales. What is different about pentatonic scales? How are they used? This article will answer these questions and more.
What are Pentatonic Scales?
Major and minor scales have a seven-note-per-octave, or heptatonic scale. By contrast, pentatonic scales use five notes per octave. They are also called five-note scales or five-tone scales.
The two basic forms of pentatonic scales are:
- Major Pentatonic – Consists of the 1st – 2nd – 3rd – 5th – 6th notes of a major scale.
- Minor Pentatonic – Consists of the same 5 notes of a major pentatonic scale, but its tonic (first note of the scale) is 3 semitones below the tonic of the major pentatonic scale.
For example, the C major pentatonic (C – D – E – G – A) has the same notes as the A minor pentatonic (A – C – D – E – G) but arranged differently. The first note or tonic of the A minor pentatonic scale (=A) is 3 semitones (half steps) lower than the first note of the C major pentatonic scale (=C). It uses the 1st – minor 3rd – 4th – 5th – minor 7th notes of a scale.
Pentatonic scales are used in many types and traditions of music from all over the world. Examples include American Jazz, Gospel, and Folk music, Native American music, Folk music of Greece, Japan, China, Hungary, Vietnam, and West Africa.
Types of Pentatonic Scales
Pentatonic scales are typically designated as “hemitonic” or “anhemitonic.” Hemitonic scales include semitones, also called half-steps. Anhemitonic scales do not have semitones. Anhemitonic scales are much more common.
Well-Known Examples of Pentatonic Scales
- The bass, 12-string and lead guitar intro of “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd.
- The riff at the chorus end of Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff”
- The guitar solo of “Turn off The Light” by Nelly Furtado
- The main melody of “Amazing Grace”
- The introductory lick of “Honky Tonk Woman” by The Rolling Stones
- Chopin’s Etude in G-flat major, op. 10, no. 5.
Use in Guitar Work
Starting with the A minor pentatonic scale, there are many pentatonic scales that you can play by moving the same pattern up or down the guitar neck. For example, the A minor pentatonic scale can play the part of lead scale in A minor, A major, and C major chord progressions. If you transfer the A minor pentatonic arrangement to the 7th fret, you will arrive at the B minor pentatonic scale, which complements songs in D minor.
Pentatonic Scales on the Piano
The easiest way to play the scale on piano is to play the black keys. If you start on the G flat, it’s the major pentatonic and if you start on the E flat, it’s the minor pentatonic.
Let’s try the pentatonic scale in C. The notes are C D E G A; this is the major; and the easiest fingering to use going up is 123 12 in the right hand and 321 21 in the left; A minor is the relative minor of C so playing A minor pentatonic is the same as C major pentatonic, except that you start on the A note.
When you play the minor pentatonic scale, if you listen carefully, you might be able to hear that it sounds a bit bluesy. This is because the Blues scale is exactly the same but with an added note, in A minor the added note would be E flat or D sharp.
It may seem like a difficult concept at first, but with practice you will see how easy pentatonic scales are to play. You will also discover how useful they are, no matter what genre or instrument you are focusing on.