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Summer homework: learn the pentatonic scale

Summer homework: learn the pentatonic scale

If kids have to do a bit of schoolwork over the summer holidays to keep up with things, musicians of any level should too. Like any good teacher, we at Jamzone didn't forget this and to keep you from getting rusty over the summer months, we've prepared a little revision. Let's start off slowly with an overview of pentatonic scales.

Give me five!

At one time or another, when we pick up an instrument, we end up coming across the notion of a scale: an ascending or descending sequence of notes that will follow one another in order. You all know at least the major one: Do - Re - Mi - Fa - Sol - La - Si - Do. The most well-known is also known as the C major scale.

There are several different scales, some of which display names that might give you cold sweats just thinking about them (for example the zarlino scale or the mixolydian mode). Don’t fret, you don’t need to have any particular degree though to understand the pentatonic scale. It's been around for centuries and has been used by all types of musicians and across all genres. If you only have to remember one of all of the various scales, the pentatonic would be it.

There’s nothing overly boring about it in its simplicity. On the contrary, its main advantage is that it opens doors to improv jam sessions and solos. Why? Because just like a sentence that makes sense when the words are in the right order, a musical sentence will sound right if the notes are in the right order and scale. So you can improvise without the risk of getting off track as long as you stay in correct range.

The Greek word "penta" in "pentatonic" means "five.” So the pentatonic scale consists of five pitches of different sounds (not different tones), and is an approximate translation of the word "der ton," which means both "sound" and "your").

How are the pentatonic scales made up?

Wait, what do you mean “scales” in the plural form? There are more than one? Don’t panic: this simply refers to the major pentatonic scales (to make it simple, this is the equivalent of a joyous tone) and minor ( sadder tones)).

The major pentatonic scale

Why major? Because it's a major third. Here is its series of notes:

I (fundamental or tonic)II (major second) – III (major third) – V (perfect fifth) – VI (major sixth) – T (tonic)

It appears according to these intervals between the notes:

1 tone – 1 tone – 1.5 tones – 1 tone and 1.5 tones.

Major pentatonic scale: Do

Do – Re – Mi – Sol – La – Do – Re: Re – Mi – Fa# – La – Si – Re – Mi: Mi – Fa# – Sol# – Si – Do# – Mi Etc.

The minor pentatonic scale

You guessed it, if the pentatonic scale is designated as minor, it is because its third is minor. This is the pentatonic reference scale. Moreover, by extension, when one speaks of pentatonic scale, this is usually the one that is referenced. This is the favorite scale of rock music for example.

Notes : I (tonic) – IIIm (minor third) – IV (perfect fourth) – V (perfect fifth) – VIIm (minor seventh) – I (tonic)

It respects the following:

1.5 tones – 1 tone – 1 tone – 1.5 tones.

Minor pentatonic scale: Do

Do – Mib – Fa – Sol – Sib – Do – Re: Re – Fa – Sol – La – Do – Re – Mi: Mi – Sol – La – Si – Re – Mi Etc.


The pentatonic scale of the minor is: La – Do – Re – Mi – Sol – La. Make you think of something? Yep, you guessed it, it's the same as the pentatonic scale of Do major! If you remember the one, you'll remember the other!

But… how? Simply because, if you take a close look, the intervals of the minor pentatonic scale are the same as those of the major scale, just at a lag. Indeed, the mode II of the minor pentatonic scale, that is to say from its second note, follows the same scale as the major pentatonic.

Starting to get a bit confusing? Here is an example:

Take the Mi minor pentatonic scale (Mi – Sol – La – Si – Re – Mi). Its second note is Sol. It's major pentatonic scale follows the same scale: Sol – La – Si – Ré – Mi – Sol. This is called "relative scales."

The other pentatonic scales

If you want to expand your horizons, there are other variations like:

- The blues pentatonic scale: We’ve added what’s called a blue note.

(I – IIIm – IV – Vb – V – VI – T)

- The pentatonic scale 7 (I – II – III – V – VIIb – I)

- The pentatonic scale 6 (I – IIIm – IV – V – VI – I)

Examples of songs built on pentatonic scales

"Amazing Grace", "Sunshine of Your Love" from Cream, "Stairway to Heaven" or "Heartbreaker" from Led Zeppelin, Bombtrack from Rage Against the Machine, "Fire" de Jimi Hendrix, "Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2" from Pink Floyd, "Billie Jean" from Michael Jackson, etc.

We leave you with our backing track of Another Brick in The Wall, Pt. 2! Grab your guitar and play like you're David Gilmour, you’ve now got the power!