Pentatonic scales were developed independently by many ancient civilizations and are still used in various musical styles to this day. There are two types of pentatonic scales: those with semitones (hemitonic) and those without (anhemitonic).
Hemitonic and anhemitonic
Musicology commonly classifies pentatonic scales as either hemitonic or anhemitonic. Hemitonic scales contain one or more semitones and anhemitonic scales do not contain semitones. (For example, in Japanese music the anhemitonic yo scale is contrasted with the hemitonic in scale.) Hemitonic pentatonic scales are also called "ditonic scales", because the largest interval in them is the ditone (e.g., in the scale C–E–F–G–B–C, the interval found between C–E and G–B). (This should not be confused with the identical term also used by musicologists to describe a scale including only two notes.)
Major pentatonic scale
Anhemitonic pentatonic scales can be constructed in many ways. The major pentatonic scale may be thought of as a gapped or incomplete major scale. However, the pentatonic scale has a unique character and is complete in terms of tonality. One construction takes five consecutive pitches from the circle of fifths; starting on C, these are C, G, D, A, and E. Transposing the pitches to fit into one octave rearranges the pitches into the major pentatonic scale: C, D, E, G, A.
Another construction works backward: It omits two pitches from a diatonic scale. If one were to begin with a C major scale, for example, one might omit the fourth and the seventh scale degrees, F and B. The remaining notes then make up the major pentatonic scale: C, D, E, G, and A.
Omitting the third and seventh degrees of the C major scale obtains the notes for another transpositionally equivalent anhemitonic pentatonic scale: F, G, A, C, D. Omitting the first and fourth degrees of the C major scale gives a third anhemitonic pentatonic scale: G, A, B, D, E.
Minor pentatonic scale
Although various hemitonic pentatonic scales might be called minor, the term is most commonly applied to the relative minor pentatonic derived from the major pentatonic, using scale tones 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7 of the natural minor scale. (It may also be considered a gapped blues scale.) The C minor pentatonic scale, the relative minor of the E-flat pentatonic scale, is C, E-flat, F, G, B-flat. The A minor pentatonic, the relative minor of C pentatonic, comprises the same tones as the C major pentatonic, starting on A, giving A, C, D, E, G. This minor pentatonic contains all three tones of an A minor triad.
Japanese mode is based on Phrygian mode, but use scale tones 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 instead of scale tones 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7.
Pentatonic scales found by running up the keys C, D, E, G and A
The five pentatonic scales found by running up the keys C, D, E, G and A are:
|Tonic||Name(s)||Chinese pentatonic scale||Indian pentatonic scale||On C||Keys on C-major pentatonic scale||Black keys (the keys on G♭-major pentatonic scale)||Ratios (just)||White-key transpositions (the keys on C-major, F-major and G-major pentatonic scale)|
|1 (C)||Major pentatonic||宮 (gong, C) mode||Hindustani – Raag Bhupali
Carnatic – Raga Mohanam
|C D E G A C||C D E G A C||G♭–A♭–B♭–D♭–E♭–G♭||24:27:30:36:40:48||C D E G A C|
F G A C D F or
G A B D E G
|2 (D)||Egyptian, suspended||商 (shang, D) mode||Hindustani – Raag Megh
Carnatic – Raga Madhyamavati
|C D F G B♭ C||D E G A C D||A♭–B♭–D♭–E♭–G♭–A♭||24:27:32:36:42:48||D E G A C D|
G A C D F G or
A B D E G A
|3 (E)||Blues minor, Man Gong (Guqin tunings)||角 (jue, E) mode||Hindustani – Raag Malkauns
Carnatic – Raga Hindolam
|C E♭ F A♭ B♭ C||E G A C D E||B♭–D♭–E♭–G♭–A♭–B♭||15:18:20:24:27:30||E G A C D E|
A C D F G A or
B D E G A B
|5 (G)||Blues major, ritsusen), yo scale||徵 (zhi, G) mode||Hindustani – Raag Durga
Carnatic – Raga Shuddha Saveri
|C D F G A C||G A C D E G||D♭–E♭–G♭–A♭–B♭–D♭||24:27:32:36:40:48||G A C D E G|
C D F G A C or
D E G A B D
|6 (A)||Minor pentatonic||羽 (yu, A) mode||Hindustani – Raag Dhani
Carnatic – Raga Udayaravichandrika
|C E♭ F G B♭ C||A C D E G A||E♭–G♭–A♭–B♭–D♭–E♭||30:36:40:45:54:60||A C D E G A|
D F G A C D or
E G A B D E
(A minor seventh can be 7:4, 16:9, or 9:5; a major sixth can be 27:16 or 5:3. Both were chosen to minimize ratio parts.)
Ricker assigned the major pentatonic scale mode I while Gilchrist assigned it mode III.
Derivation from diatonic modes
Each pentatonic scale found by running up the keys C, D, E, G and A can be thought of as the five scale degrees shared by three different diatonic modes with the two remaining scale degrees removed:
|Based on modes (Diatonic scale)||Base scale
|Major||C||I–II–III–V–VI||Omit 4 7||W–W–3/2–W–3/2|
|Blues major||G||I–II–IV–V–VI||Omit 3 7||W–3/2–W–W–3/2|
|Suspended||D||I–II–IV–V–VII||Omit 3 6||W–3/2–W–3/2–W|
|Minor||A||I–III–IV–V–VII||Omit 2 6||3/2–W–W–3/2–W|
|Blues minor||E||I–III–IV–VI–VII||Omit 2 5||3/2–W–3/2–W–W|
Intervals from tonic
Each pentatonic scale found by running up the keys C, D, E, G and A feature different intervals of notes from the tonic according to the table below. Note the omission of the semitones above (m2) and below (M7) the tonic as well as the tritone (TT).
|Intervals with respect to the tonic|
Naturals in that table are not the alphabetic series A to G without sharps and flats: Naturals are reciprocals of terms in the Harmonic series (mathematics), which are in practice multiples of a fundamental frequency. This may be derived by proceeding with the principle that historically gives the Pythagorean diatonic and chromatic scales, stacking perfect fifths with 3:2 frequency proportions (C–G–D–A–E). Considering the anhemitonic scale as a subset of a just diatonic scale, it is tuned thus: 20:24:27:30:36 (A–C–D–E–G = 5⁄6–1⁄1–9⁄8–5⁄4–3⁄2). Assigning precise frequency proportions to the pentatonic scales of most cultures is problematic as tuning may be variable.
For example, the slendro anhemitonic scale and its modes of Java and Bali are said to approach, very roughly, an equally-tempered five-note scale, but their tunings vary dramatically from gamelan to gamelan.
Composer Lou Harrison has been one of the most recent proponents and developers of new pentatonic scales based on historical models. Harrison and William Colvig tuned the slendro scale of the gamelan Si Betty to overtones 16:19:21:24:28 (1⁄1–19⁄16–21⁄16–3⁄2–7⁄4). They tuned the Mills gamelan so that the intervals between scale steps are 8:7–7:6–9:8–8:7–7:6 (1⁄1–8⁄7–4⁄3–3⁄2–12⁄7–2⁄1 = 42:48:56:63:72)
Use of pentatonic scales
Pentatonic scales occur in many musical traditions:
- Indian classical music, both Hindustani and Carnatic traditions
- Peruvian Chicha cumbia
- Indigenous ethnic folk music of Assam
- Sudanese Arab Music
- Celtic folk music
- English folk music
- German folk music
- Nordic folk music
- Hungarian folk music
- Croatian folk music
- Berber music
- West African music
- African-American spirituals
- Gospel music
- Bluegrass music
- American folk music
- Music of Ethiopia
- Rock music
- Sami joik singing
- Children's song
- The music of ancient Greece
- Music of southern Albania
- Folk songs of peoples of the Middle Volga region (such as the Mari, the Chuvash and Tatars)
- The tuning of the Ethiopian krar and the Indonesian gamelan
- Philippine kulintang
- Native American music, especially in highland South America (the Quechua and Aymara), as well as among the North American Indians of the Pacific Northwest
- Most Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic music of Siberia and the Asiatic steppe is written in the pentatonic scale
- Melodies of China, Korea, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Japan, and Vietnam (including the folk music of these countries)
- Andean music
- Afro-Caribbean music
- Polish highlanders from the Tatra Mountains
- Western Impressionistic composers such as French composer Claude Debussy.
In classical music
Indian classical music has hundreds of ragas, of which many are pentatonic. Examples include Raag Abhogi Kanada (C, D, E-flat, F, A), Raag Bhupali (C, D, E, G, A), Raag Bairagi (C, D-flat, F, G, B-flat), Raag Chandrakauns (C, E-flat, F, A-flat, B), Raag Dhani (C, E-flat, F, G, B-flat), Raag Durga (C, D, F, G, A), Raag Gunakari (C, D-flat, F, G, A-flat), Raag Hamsadhwani (C, D, E, G, B), Raag Hindol (C, E, F#, A, B), Raag Kalavati (C, E, G, A, B-flat), Raag Katyayani (C, D, E-flat, G, A-flat), Raag Malkauns (C, E-flat, F, A-flat, B-flat), Raag Megh (C, D, F, G, B-flat), Raag Shivaranjani (C, D, E-flat, G, A), Raag Shuddha Sarang (C, D, F#, G, B), Raag Tilang (C, E, F, G, B), Raag Vibhas (C, D-flat, E, G, A-flat),}} Raag Vrindavani Sarang (C, D, F, G, B), and others.
Further pentatonic musical traditions
The major pentatonic scale is the basic scale of the music of China and the music of Mongolia as well as many Southeast Asian musical traditions such as that of the Karen people as well as the indigenous Assamese ethnic groups. The pentatonic scale predominates most Eastern countries as opposed to Western countries where the heptatonic scale is more commonly used. The fundamental tones (without meri or kari techniques) rendered by the five holes of the Japanese shakuhachi flute play a minor pentatonic scale. The yo scale used in Japanese shomyo Buddhist chants and gagaku imperial court music is an anhemitonic pentatonic scale shown below, which is the fourth mode of the major pentatonic scale.
In Javanese gamelan music, the slendro scale has five tones, of which four are emphasized in classical music. Another scale, pelog, has seven tones, and is generally played using one of three five-tone subsets known as pathet, in which certain notes are avoided while others are emphasized.
Somali music uses a distinct modal system that is pentatonic, with characteristically long intervals between some notes. As with many other aspects of Somali culture and tradition, tastes in music and lyrics are strongly linked with those in nearby Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Sudan.
In Scottish music, the pentatonic scale is very common. Seumas MacNeill suggests that the Great Highland bagpipe scale with its augmented fourth and diminished seventh is "a device to produce as many pentatonic scales as possible from its nine notes" (although these two features are not in the same scale)[clarification needed].[failed verification] Roderick Cannon explains these pentatonic scales and their use in more detail, both in Piobaireachd and light music. It also features in Irish traditional music, either purely or almost so. The minor pentatonic is used in Appalachian folk music. Blackfoot music most often uses anhemitonic tetratonic or pentatonic scales.
In Andean music, the pentatonic scale is used substantially minor, sometimes major, and seldom in scale. In the most ancient genres of Andean music being performed without string instruments (only with winds and percussion), pentatonic melody is often led with parallel fifths and fourths, so formally this music is hexatonic.
Jazz music commonly uses both the major and the minor pentatonic scales. Pentatonic scales are useful for improvisers in modern jazz, pop, and rock contexts because they work well over several chords diatonic to the same key, often better than the parent scale. For example, the blues scale is predominantly derived from the minor pentatonic scale, a very popular scale for improvisation in the realms of blues and rock alike. For instance, over a C major triad (C, E, G) in the key of C major, the note F can be perceived as dissonant as it is a half step above the major third (E) of the chord. It is for this reason commonly avoided. Using the major pentatonic scale is an easy way out of this problem. The scale tones 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 (from the major pentatonic) are either major triad tones (1, 3, 5) or common consonant extensions (2, 6) of major triads. For the corresponding relative minor pentatonic, scale tones 1, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭7 work the same way, either as minor triad tones (1, ♭3, 5) or as common extensions (4, ♭7), as they all avoid being a half step from a chord tone.
The common pentatonic major and minor scales (C-D-E-G-A and C-E♭-F-G-B♭, respectively) are useful in modal composing, as both scales allow a melody to be modally ambiguous between their respective major (Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian) and minor (Aeolian, Phrygian, Dorian) modes (Locrian excluded). With either modal or non-modal writing, however, the harmonization of a pentatonic melody does not necessarily have to be derived from only the pentatonic pitches.
Role in education
The Orff system places a heavy emphasis on developing creativity through improvisation in children, largely through use of the pentatonic scale. Orff instruments, such as xylophones, bells and other metallophones, use wooden bars, metal bars or bells, which can be removed by the teacher, leaving only those corresponding to the pentatonic scale, which Carl Orff himself believed to be children's native tonality.
Children begin improvising using only these bars, and over time, more bars are added at the teacher's discretion until the complete diatonic scale is being used. Orff believed that the use of the pentatonic scale at such a young age was appropriate to the development of each child, since the nature of the scale meant that it was impossible for the child to make any real harmonic mistakes.
In Waldorf education, pentatonic music is considered to be appropriate for young children due to its simplicity and unselfconscious openness of expression. Pentatonic music centered on intervals of the fifth is often sung and played in early childhood; progressively smaller intervals are emphasized within primarily pentatonic as children progress through the early school years. At around nine years of age the music begins to center on first folk music using a six-tone scale, and then the modern diatonic scales, with the goal of reflecting the children's developmental progress in their musical experience. Pentatonic instruments used include lyres, pentatonic flutes, and tone bars; special instruments have been designed and built for the Waldorf curriculum.
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Some prefer the first Raga to be pentatonic in scale. Let us take for an example, the pentatonic Bhoopali. Its notes are: SA RI GA PA DHA SA up and down the scale.
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They are set to one of the most widely performed ragas in North India, the pentatonic midnight raga Malkauns. The most important notes of Malkauns are Sa (the tonic) and Ma (the fourth). Both the gats and the tihais "cadence" on one of ...
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- Bruno Nettl, Blackfoot Musical Thought: Comparative Perspectives (Ohio: The Kent State University Press, 1989): p. 43. ISBN 0-87338-370-2.
- "The Pentatonic and Blues Scale". How To Play Blues Guitar. 2008-07-09. Archived from the original on 2008-07-14. Retrieved 2008-07-11.
- "NROTC Cadences". Retrieved 2010-09-22.
- Steve Turner, Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song (New York: HarperCollins, 2002): p. 122. ISBN 0-06-000219-0.
- Beth Landis; Polly Carder (1972). The Eclectic Curriculum in American Music Education: Contributions of Dalcroze, Kodaly, and Orff. Washington D.C.: Music Educators National Conference. p. 82. ISBN 978-0-940796-03-4.
- Amanda Long. "Involve Me: Using the Orff Approach within the Elementary Classroom". The Keep. Eastern Illinois University. p. 7. Retrieved 1 May 2015.
- Andrea Intveen, Musical Instruments in Anthroposophical Music Therapy with Reference to Rudolf Steiner’s Model of the Threefold Human Being Archived 2012-04-02 at the Wayback Machine
- Jeff Burns, Pentatonic Scales for the Jazz-Rock Keyboardist (Lebanon, Indiana: Houston Publishing, 1997). ISBN 978-0-7935-7679-1.
- Jeremy Day-O'Connell, Pentatonicism from the Eighteenth Century to Debussy (Rochester: University of Rochester Press 2007) – the first comprehensive account of the increasing use of the pentatonic scale in 19th-century Western art music, including a catalogue of over 400 musical examples.
- Trần Văn Khê, "Le pentatonique est-il universel? Quelques reflexions sur le pentatonisme", The World of Music 19, nos. 1–2:85–91 (1977). English translation: "Is the pentatonic universal? A few reflections on pentatonism" pp. 76–84. – via JSTOR (subscription required)
- Yamaguchi Masaya (New York: Charles Colin, 2002; New York: Masaya Music, Revised 2006). Pentatonicism in Jazz: Creative Aspects and Practice. ISBN 0-9676353-1-4
- Kurt Reinhard, "On the problem of pre-pentatonic scales: particularly the third-second nucleus", Journal of the International Folk Music Council 10 (1958). JSTOR 835966 (subscription required)
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