Pentatonic scales

A short introduction to pentatonics


'There are not more than five musical notes yet, the combinations of these five
give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard'

(Sun Tzi: The art of War, 3rd century B.C.)


Let me disagree with some music theory books that claim pentatonic scale, which is a scale with five notes per octave, being a sequence of perfect fifths, not to be the most ancient scale. Starting these fifths intervals from note C, you can get the notes of the circle of fifths, practically all the twelve different notes.


C - G - D - A - E - B - F sharp - C sharp - G sharp - D sharp - A sharp - E sharp - (B sharp)



This is the fundament of the Pythagorean tuning system, which obviously has a range of several, to be exact eight, octaves . Arranging the first five notes within one octave and putting the notes pitch-wise, the major pentatonic scale will appear:


C - D - E - G - A


Only two more notes are needed to get the C Major scale that's playable using only the white keys of the piano:


C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C


I would add here that the two notes put in the previous scale are not fifths. If they were fifths, the C Lydian scale would appear:


 C - D - E - F sharp - G - A - B - C


The ancient Chinese already recognized this.


Just for the record, the ancient Greek even knew the quarter-tone steps (more on this in section The origins of the basic scales). In addition, a 20th century Czech composer named Alois Hába was also known for his experimental work on a similar tonal system, which is considered more like some kind of a recitative than pure music, at least in my understanding.


I want to note that later on I intend to make similar experiments, that is experimenting with different tonal systems, and publish them in section Fretless guitar II.


Here's another, more comprehensible musical explanation on the pentatonic scales, which you can easily understand looking at the black keys of the piano:



Playing only the black keys you will get a pentatonic scale. It is the Music of The Universe, the pure and ancient musicality itself. As an evidence of the aforementioned, the ancient Chinese civilization, which stretches back to thousands of years in the past, has considered the pentatonic system a basic system for their music, which evidences from as early as 3000 BC prove. Plus, the pentatonic system has also given the base to the blues genre, originated from African-American communities, and the Hungarian folk music. All in all, the pentatonic system is ancient and intuitive.


What I will describe in depth out of the scales above is mostly the blues, in other words minor, pentatonic scale. (The Chinese, in other words major, pentatonic scale would also be worth mentioning, as the only difference between them is the starting note. However, the Chinese musical system also features other, seven-note scales.)


Nowadays' guitar-oriented popular music is mainly based on the blues music, to be accurate the minor pentatonic scale. Thus I intend to present to you the minor pentatonic scale with all degrees, taking note E as a starting tone. The E Minor pentatonic scale enjoys a very popular role amongst the other starting notes, as note E is the lowest note on a guitar (with standard tuning), making it pretty easy and comfortable to play the other degrees. That's what you will see below, the five degrees of the pentatonic scale... - Pentatonic scales - A short introduction to pentatonics