Pentatonic Scale - Explained and Visualized & 5 Ways to Use It

February 17, 2020

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5 Ways to Use it

Pentatonic Scale, as the name suggests, is a musical scale made of five notes per octave.


In this article, I’ll introduce you to how pentatonic scales are build, how they work and show you 5 ways of how you can use them in your songwriting.

There are two variations of this scale:

1. Minor - which is taken from the natural minor scale, and it's made by omitting the 2nd and 6th intervals of the respective scale.

2. Major - which is taken from the major scale, and it's made up by omitting the 4th and 7th intervals of that scale.

Pentatonic scales were developed simultaneously by many ancient civilizations, but they stayed the same until today. Even so that the many older instruments such as flutes were exclusively made to play pentatonic scale (tone intervals between the holes were matching the intervals in the pentatonic scale.)

It is used in many popular music genres such as pop, rock, blues, R&B, metal and in electronic music as well. However, they can be found in jazz and certain traditional music, too!

Pentatonic minor scale is most likely the first scale that you will learn no matter what instrument you are playing. Especially, if you are starting on the guitar.

Literally, 99% of today's music is based solely on the pentatonic scale, with the addition of natural minor or major.

But why is it like this?

It's a very easy scale to learn, remember and put to use. Plus, it's also easy to sing its notes and remember the intervals. In fact, many musicians (including famous ones) don't really know any other scale besides pentatonic. And the reason is quite simple - it does the job for them!

Melodies based on the pentatonic scale are very recognizable, easy to sing along, and they quickly stick with the average listener.

For example, let's take a famous Avicii's single "Wake Me Up."

The song is in a key of B-minor, and it uses common Bm-G-D-A progression.

This pattern is also found in like 90% of pop music. The key and the chord order might be different, but the intervals stay the same.

The hook line, that makes this song what it is, is entirely in the B-minor pentatonic scale. Now you have an idea of this scale and why is so important! And even if you don't know it, you know it's that scale when you hear it!

Translating Pentatonic Scale into different Keys

Pentatonic scale is really easy to transcribe and shift to other keys as well. If you have A-minor pentatonic scale, you can change it to any other key and find notes based on their respective intervals from the tonic.

In the minor pentatonic scale, the intervals are as following: tonic – step and a half – full step – full step – step and a half and so on.

This is a pattern that is always applied regardless of the key.

In the major scale, it's tonic – full step – full step – step and a half – full step and so on.

If you are a piano player, you can use a cool trick to memorize and transcribe your pentatonic scale. Essentially, your black keys represent major pentatonic scale. But you have to start from the first group of three black keys. Your first note is G-flat and that is your tonic. Play your first group of three keys and the next group of two black keys. You have just played a Gb major pentatonic scale. It’s that easy!

Now, let's see how you can use and implement this scale to your own music and songwriting.

Chord Progressions

Many simple chord progressions are taken exactly from the pentatonic scale, regardless of tonality. Let's take the A-minor pentatonic scale for example.

This alone already gives you five different chords to work with. And they work in any combination, order, and placement. For intros and verses, you can just use two chords.

For example, the first line would be Am-Dm, and it kinda sounds open, as if you're going in circles. To resolve it, you can either add Em or G. And you already have a progression that is found in a lot of songs.

This is just a blank example. The possibilities are truly endless! Whatever kind of song it is that you're writing, the pentatonic scale always comes in handy!

Bass Lines

Now, this is where your scale knowledge comes in handy, especially knowing your respective major and minor pentatonic scales.

If we were to take our previous progression, Am-Dm, it doesn't do too much on its own besides just providing a basic canvas to work with. But if we can spice it up with good baselines, we are already a step closer to making something much more remarkable. You can either use just your A-minor pentatonic scale and play a certain note on each downbeat. That's not too bad, but it's really predictable and might sound boring.

We can now take each separate chord instead, and whenever that chord is played in our harmony, we can play some notes from its respective pentatonic scale as our bass. Again, not too complicated, but it can really add a lot to the song and expand the initial idea for making music.

Vocal melodies and hooks

We already discussed melodies and hooks in our first example. But what about vocals? That's right, the pentatonic scale can also be used to write good vocal lines! And that's because it's really easy to hit those notes and intervals while singing. If you are not convinced, make a little experiment yourself:

Take a random chord progression. You can use a chord generator for this. Make it very simple - take two, three or four chords at maximum. Listen to it a few times and try to sing any melody over it. Now, play your melody on any instrument and notice what happens. Pretty much 99% of the time, you come up with a melody that consists of notes in the pentatonic scale of your key.

It's not a coincidence. It's just that the pentatonic scale in music is just like vowels in the alphabet. You won't find a word that doesn't have at least one or two vowels!

Rhythm & Blues

Ever wondered why R&B stands for Rhythm & Blues?

As far as most people are concerned, blues used to be this boring music with a lot of guitar solos. Some also refer to it as old people's music.

But you don't really hear too many guitars in R&B, if any. That's because blues doesn't stand for blues genre of music, but for blue notes.

Your pentatonic major and minor scale can be upgraded by adding a certain blue note. Logically, it isn't a pentatonic scale anymore since it will have 6 notes, but everybody just refers to it as the pentatonic blues scale.

An additional note in your minor pentatonic scale is the flat 5th interval of the respective key. While for major scale it is the flat 3rd interval of that key.

An additional note might not sound like too much to work with, but a good songwriter can make a world of a difference with just a single note! It's not about how much you have, but how well you can use that what you have!

Improvisation

This is another great way to implement the pentatonic scale into your songwriting. Let's say you want to have a guitar solo in your song. But you don't really know what to play, so you might want to improvise it a few times and see what happens.

For guitarists who just want to jam with others, an understanding of the pentatonic scale and its various positions along the neck is crucial!

Let's take a look at the E-minor pentatonic scale. We will focus on this little "box" around the 12th fret or your octave.

e|---10-----12-------15-|

B|---10----12-------15--|

G|-9-------12----14-----|

D|-9-------12----14-----|

A|---10----12----14-----|

E|---10----12-------15--|

This by itself is already a lot to work with. Many guitar solos and guitar lines are written just using this "box."

It's also good because you can utilize all your open strings as well without thinking if they are going to be in the key or not!

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