pentatonics: the basics πŸ‡¬πŸ‡§

The term “pentatonic” comes from the Greek language: the prefix penta-, “five,” and the word tonos, “tone,” are associated to bring forth the idea of a five-tone scale.

There are of course many five-tone scale possibilities within the twelve-tone equal temperament system. We’ll focus on the most common pentatonic scale here and call it the “global” pentatonicΒΉ (this particular scale is indeed encountered in the musics of many cultures around the world).

[1] The global pentatonic is based on a succession of ascending fifths: C G D A E.

[2] Reordered within the range of a single octave, we have: C D E G A.

[3] The intervals formed by the tones of this scale relative to its root (C) are as follows:

  • a major second between C and D;
  • a major third between C and E;
  • a perfect fifth between C and G;
  • a major sixth between C and A .

Since all the intervals in this scale are major (except the perfect fifth), it is often referred to as the major pentatonic. What I call the scale’s “formula,” based on Arabic numeralsΒ² representing its scale degrees (as opposed to Roman numerals commonly used to represent chords that are built on each scale degree), is: 1 2 3 5 6.

[4] Just like the diatonic seven-note major scale (C D E F G A B), the major pentatonic’s relative minor scale can be built by playing all the notes that comprise the major pentatonic, beginning on the tone located a minor third below the latter scale’s root: A C D E G.

[5] The intervals formed by the tones of this new scale relative to its root (A) are as follows:

  • a minor third between A and C;
  • a perfect fourth between A and D;
  • a perfect fifth between A and E;
  • a minor seventh between A and G.

Since all the intervals in this scale are minor (except the perfect fourth and fifth), it is often called the minor pentatonic. Its “formula” is: 1 b3 4 5 b7.

To sum up, here are the important formulas again below (accompanied by examples with the note C as the tonic in both cases, for ease of comparison):

Major pentatonic1 2 3 5 6C D E G A
Minor pentatonic1 b3 4 5 b7C Eb F G Bb

Notes

ΒΉ This terminology is used by Michael Hewitt in his book Musical Scales of the World (see Hewitt 2013).

Β² More accurately speaking, these are the numerals commonly used in Europe that stem from the Hindu-Arabic numeral system.

References

Hewitt, Michael. β€œSection 5: Pentatonic Scales.” In Musical Scales of the World, 125-134. The Note Tree, 2013.


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