Pentatonic: Pentatonic scale in major and minor

Yacine Khorchi
Yacine Khorchi

Co-Founder | Piano teacher

Last update: 20.07.2021

The word pentatonic means translated as “5 notes” (Penta is from the Greek and means “five”). Basically this describes a scale of five different tones.

This tonal system has existed for over 3000 years. However, it is usually understood to be the major/minor pentatonic scale, which is one of the oldest and most common types of scale used in various cultures around the world.

Playing major pentatonic

In the illustration you see the C major pentatonic.

In principle, the C major pentatonic consists of notes from the C major scale, except for the fourth (F) and the major seventh (B).

Play the pentatonic on the piano and see how it sounds to you. It is best not to play it in the too low register of the piano. You can also play all notes at the same time to get an overall impression.

Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

A little tip: If you only press the black keys of the keyboard, you will get the Ges major pentatonic.

Why has this scale existed for so long? And why does it sound so pleasant, even when played together?

In reality, the pentatonic scale does not derive from the major scale, but vice versa. The pentatonic scale is obtained by building up four fifths on one note and arranging them horizontally next to each other.

This sounds so pleasant because the fifth is the most stable interval, since it is the first interval in the harmonic series (apart from the octave).

Another reason why the pentatonic sounds so pleasant is that it contains no strongly dissonant intervals. It contains neither small seconds and major sevenths nor tritones. Since it does not contain semitone steps, it is also called the anhemitonic scale.

Playing minor pentatonic

The minor pentatonic is derived from the major pentatonic. The notes of the C major pentatonic are the same notes as those of its parallel minor key on the sixth degree, A minor.

In the upper row of notes you see the C major pentatonic, in the lower row the A minor pentatonic.

Look at the thirds (related to the fundamental) of the respective pentatonic. You can also see that the major pentatonic’s third is a major third (C to E) and the minor pentatonic’s third is a minor third (A to C).

Because of its catchiness, pentatonics is often used in popular music:

  • Under The Bridge by Red Hot Chilli Peppers

  • Amazing Grace by John Newton

We have known their sound since childhood through children’s and folk songs (e.g. Auld lang syne).

That’s why it is often used in the media, especially in advertising, because we can better remember melodies based on pentatonics.

The next time you sit in front of the TV and listen to an advertising jingle, you can try to play it on the piano, and with the knowledge from here, analyze which degrees on the pentatonic scale are used.

Pentatonics as an introduction to improvisation

Pentatonics is particularly recommended for the beginning of improvisation, as it is not too complicated and the sound is very familiar. Especially in the Blues, pentatonics is a common tool for melody and improvisation.

First with the minor pentatonic (F minor pentatonic for an F Blues) and then with extensions (Blues scale).

Become aware of how the pentatonic can be played in the different keys on the piano.

Then you can try to find out the pentatonic of your favourite songs and improvise on them.

For example, try the A flat major pentatonic on Happy by Pharrell Williams.

Have fun experimenting!

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