Pentatonic Scales: The Handiest Jamming/Improv Tool

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Hey friends! Today we’ll be chatting about pentatonic scales, which is an extremely useful scale to know if you’re into jamming and improvising (even if that’s just something you do by yourself).

We’re going to talk about how to figure them out (the theory), listen to a few examples of songs that use them, and how to apply them.

What are pentatonic scales?


First things first. What is a pentatonic scale?

A pentatonic scale is a five-note scale (penta = five), and is super common around the world with all kinds of different instruments, or if you’re a guitar player. In the interest of brevity, I won’t rattle off all the genres that use pentatonic scales, but I will name a few:

-Eastern music
-Some Western folk music, like Scottish bagpipe music and Celtic folk music
-Gospel, bluegrass, and American folk music
-Rock and blues

So basically all music everywhere.

Even particular instruments are designed to this scale, such as the Japanese shakuhachi flute.

The most common type of pentatonic scale is an “anhemitonic” one (at least in Western music), which just means there aren’t any semitones to be found in the five scale notes.

For example, a common pentatonic scale can be formed by deleting the fourth and seventh notes of a major scale. Let’s use C major as our example, since it’s easy.

1  2  3  (4)  5  6  (7)

C  D  E        G  A

So a C major pentatonic scale would be “C D E G A”.

As a piano player, probably the easiest way to remember how a pentatonic scale works is to look at the black keys. There are five of them, just like there are five notes in a pentatonic scale. See where I’m going with this?

By starting at Gb, the black keys naturally form a Gb major pentatonic scale:

Gb Ab Bb   Db Eb

So figuring out how to do a pentatonic scale using the black keys is usually where I start (even though C major pentatonic scale is pretty easy too).

The sound of pentatonic scales

Okay, so now you know how pentatonic scales are formed – let’s talk about how it sounds, and listen to a few examples.

The first example I absolutely have to show you is by Chopin, because he’s one of my favorites and his Etudes are ridiculous and awesome.

His “Black Key Etude”, more properly known as Etude op. 10, no. 5, heartily embraces the pentatonic scale. Pentatonic songs have a really unique flavor – without describing it too much, I’d rather you just get a sense of them yourself.

Contemporary and folk examples

We’re going to rapid-fire a few more examples, though this is but a teeny-tiny sampling of all the thousands upon thousands of songs that are based on pentatonic scales. We’ll look at a little jazz, a little rock, and some folk music for good measure.

Why pentatonic scales are great for jamming

The awesome thing about pentatonic scales, and why they’re so great for jamming, is without any of those semitones (the fourth and seventh notes), it becomes really hard to hit a wrong note when you’re jamming.

So say your guitarist starts jamming a little tune in C major, and it’s your job to pluck out a melody. You really can’t go wrong with the five pentatonic notes – C, D, E, G, A. They will almost always sound good, or at the very least, workable.

Minor pentatonic scales

Let’s take a minute to talk about minor pentatonic scales. Figuring them out is actually super easy, as long as you remember how to transform a major key into a minor one.

So let’s use our Gb example, since it’s such a straightforward pentatonic scale. To find its minor equivalent, just hop down 3 semitones – you’ll land on Eb.

So an Eb minor pentatonic scale uses all the same notes of the major pentatonic scale, just in a slightly different order. This time, we’re starting on Eb and skipping to Gb.

6  1   2   3   5

Eb  Gb Ab Bb  Db

So basically, you take your original Gb pentatonic scale, and shift everything down to Eb – still hitting the same notes.

You could do the same thing very easily with C.

Find C’s minor equivalent by hopping down 3 semitones, which lands us on A. Then, we just hit all the notes of a C pentatonic scale (this time starting with A).

A  C D E  G

This minor pentatonic scale is extremely similar to the standard Blues scale, another great scale to know if you’re into improvising.

Conclusion

And that’s all there is to it! Have fun playing around with pentatonic scales, whether you’re jamming with others or by yourself at the piano.

In the next video, we’ll learn a bit about songwriting and use the pentatonic scale as our basis for that.

Until next time!

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.

One thought on “Pentatonic Scales: The Handiest Jamming/Improv Tool

  1. Pingback: Songwriting Basics: A Pentatonic Song - PianoTV.net

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