Pentatonics Power


Piano Diana: Pentatonic Scale
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 Awhile back, I wrote a post on The power of altered pentatonics. My husband plays the guitar and I always hear him playing pentatonic scales. I recently read an article by Chaim Burstein and thought I would share some of the highlights with my readers. This is good stuff to know.

The Pentatonic Scale

Technically, a pentatonic scale is any scale with five notes per octave. In practice however, there are only a handful of useful pentatonic scales. There are two common forms of the pentatonic scale: the major pentatonic and its relative minor pentatonic. Pentatonic scales can help musicians achieve a more structurally focused intervallic approach to their lines.

The major and minor pentatonics are made up of five notes and can be used interchangeably. 


C, D, E, G... A, C, D, E... G, A, C,  rest. (play 4 sets of notes as eighth notes).

Example: A Minor Pentatonic Scale

A, C, D, E... G, A, C, D... E, G, A, rest.
Some musicians prefer to think of the scale as a major pentatonic, while others tend to think of the scale in its minor form. Personally, I'd rather think of the scale as a major pentatonic; so from now on, the term "pentatonic" will refer only to the major form of the pentatonic scale. If you prefer to think of these scales as minor, you may convert to minor simply by starting the scale on the last note of the major pentatonic.

Pentatonic Patterns

Pentatonics can assist students with assimilating new scales and sounds into their repertoire. Pentatonic patterns can be categorized as either scalar or intervallic. In general, scalar patterns tend to use adjacent notes, whereas intervallic patterns tend to skip around the scale.

Example: Scalar Pattern (play 4 sets of notes as 16th notes)

C, D, E, G... D, E, G, A... E, G, A, C... G, A, C, D /
A, C, D, E... C, D, E, G... G, E, D, C... E, D, C, A /
D, C, A, G... C, A, G, E... A, G, E, D... G, E, D, C /

Example: Intervallic Pattern

A, D, E, C... D, G, A, E... G, C, D, A... C, E, G, D /
E, A, C, G, A, rest /
C, G, E, A... G, D, C, E... D, A, G, C... A, E, D, G /
E, C, A, d, C, rest /

To simplify the explanation of these patterns, I will refer to steps and skips. A step will occur when the next note is an adjacent note, and a skip will occur when we skip over a note in the scale to play the next available note. Thus, we would describe the scalar pattern as step up, step up, step up, skip down. To play the same pattern in reverse, we simply invert the formula. Thus, we have step down, step down, step down, skip up. An intervallic pattern is based upon 4ths and 2nds. The formula for this pattern would read: skip up, step up, skip down, step up. The revers pattern would read: skip down, step down, skip up, step down.

These patterns are useful in a number of ways. First, it familiarizes the student with the scale and forces them to internalize the notes involved. second, when developing as intervallic approach, these patterns will tie together two seemingly disparate tonal centers through their structural consistency. In order to have enough material to generate interesting lines, I have my students create several intervallic and scalar patterns of their own.

Next time, we'll talk about chord scale relationships and modal/ free playing.

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