A pentatonic scale is a scale that consists of 5 notes.
Sometimes the omission of notes actually yields more interest than the addition of more notes and this is where pentatonic scales come into their own.
The 2 most common types of pentatonic are the:
There is also a popular variant dubbed the:
(The above Blues Scale is just a minor pentatonic with an added b5.)
There are other lesser known pentatonic scales apart from the above. First off, we could get a great deal more variation out of each pentatonic by thinking modally and starting the scale on a different root to imply a different mode.
We know that:
A minor pentatonic is:
A C D E G.
If we start this same scale on C, we get:
C D E G A.
Now we break this down and see how the intervals relate to C.
It’s not the most interesting example. This is just the major pentatonic scale.
Let’s try a more lesser known example to get us used to the idea.
If we start on G:
G A C D E
1 2 4 5 6
We get a scale that is suitable for not only major playing but also suits the Dorian mode as well. It’s useful to study the formulas of each scale and get a thorough knowledge of them, as this topic crops up extremely often.
Being able to understand what scale works with what key is absolutely necessary for music and I have written an article explaining all of this here.
Okay, now that we have exhausted the basic pentatonics, it is time to consider completely different scales.
One of the most interesting pentatonic scales I have come across, is the Indian pentatonic.
The Indian pentatonic scale in A is:
Anytime you see a formula like the above, you should be thinking what it can go against. We can see that this could work against a major backing but equally, we should notice the b7 at the end of the scale which hints at a dominant sound.
If we carry out the logic that we did at the beginning of this article and start this scale on a different note, we can get even more interesting ideas.
This is a much more extreme example and resembles something close to the 2nd mode of the harmonic minor scale, Locrian natural 6th.
There are many pentatonic scales around and I can’t cover them all but hopefully the above example has whetted your appetite and made you understand the merit of omitting notes.
Superimposing the pentatonic scale
There are other less obvious ways to get more mileage out of pentatonic scales aside from just playing the scale over a static backing. For instance, if we consider the concept of superimposition, then we can see many other possibilities for just this one scale.
A very quick way to see the merits of such a scale is to consider it against a backing of all 12 keys.
If we take A minor for example and cycle through all 12 keys, we get the following intervals in relation to the key. (I’ve left some keys out for the sake of space+time)
A Minor pentatonic
A C D E G
1 b3 4 5 b7
b7 b2 b3 4 b6
5 b7 1 2 4
3 5 6 7 2
4 b6 b7 1 b3
It would also be necessary to consider the major pentatonic against backings as this seems to be a much underappreciated scale in western music.
A Major pentatonic
A B C# E F#
1 2 3 5 6
b7 1 2 4 5
5 6 7 2 3
It’s up to you to determine what you think is a suitable imposition. Just by looking at the above we can see that A minor over an F backing would yield a major sound due to the lack of flat tones whereas if we were to play the exact same scale but over a B backing, the effect would be the complete opposite. We would then be implying the
b7 b2 b3 b6 and
B which is essentially the Phrygian mode.
This can be taken in many different ways and for further reading on pentatonics I would recommend listening to traditional Japanese and Chinese music, these two tend to utilise these scales to a greater degree and with more variety than in western music.