Teach Yourself Music Theory – 15.) Building Pentatonic Scales

As of right now, the only scales we have covered are those with 7 different pitch classes with a repeat of a note at the octave.

But there are other common scales that use less notes.

The pentatonic scale (the “penta” prefix meaning “five”) is a scale built from 5 different pitches within its pitch class collection with a repeat at the octave. This scale is commonly used in many genres of music from rock, to jazz, folk, pop, world, etc.

A good argument as to why these scales are so widely used is because they avoid certain dissonances. You will see why shortly.

First, let’s start by building the major pentatonic scale.

A major pentatonic scale is made up of a pattern of notes set apart from each other in an ascending manner of M2-M2-m3-M2-m3 from the root to the octave:

Notice how the scale and intervallic distances do not contain anything to form dissonances (m2, A4, d5, M7, etc.). Also, take a look at how the scale is very similar to that of a regular major scale, but is missing the fourth and seventh scale degrees.

Just like every major scale has a relative natural minor scale, so will every major pentatonic scale have a relative minor pentatonic scale.

To build a minor pentatonic scale, you just have to use the same pitch class collections as the relative major pentatonic scale, but start on the sixth scale degree. Or, you can also build it by using the intervallic pattern of m3-M2-M2-m3-M2:

Similarly, it looks like a natural minor scale, but it is missing a few members. Hence, that is why the pentatonic scale is called “penta;” because it is 2 pitches short of a major or natural minor scale, making it 5 instead of 7.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read! Feel free to comment, share, and subscribe for more daily tips below! Till next time.

Author: Bryan M. Waring

Bryan Waring is a graduate of USM's School of Music with a B.M. in Performance – Composition and is now attending Belmont University for a M.M. in Commercial Media – Composition & Arranging. During his time at USM, he studied violin with Dino Liva and composition with Dr. Daniel Sonenberg, as well as has premiered several pieces during the semiannual Composer's Ensemble concert series. In 2017, Bryan was a writer for the original musical theater work of "Molded By The Flow," directed by Paul Dresher and Rinde Eckert. Outside of school, Bryan has been involved with writing music for videogame developers at Portland's CI2 Lab, collaborating with the King Tide Party, and studying with Larry Groupé (Straw Dogs) in San Diego. Now living in Nashville. Along with composing, Bryan teaches music to children, receiving the Master Teacher Award for his work at ESF Camps; and does audio engineering for live ensembles. Besides talents in music, Bryan is a team-player in any competitive work environment; equipped with skills in leadership, organization, mathematics, creativity, communication, and managing. On the side, Bryan has worked as a model for several skilled artists in the New England area. Among his other accomplishments include obtaining the rank of Eagle Scout in April 2013 with a project of building a side parking area with guide rails for Webb Mountain Park in Monroe, CT.

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