In today’s “TL;DR Music Theory: Pentatonic Scales” article we’re going to look at, you guessed it, pentatonic scales.
What are pentatonic scales?
Pentatonic scales are scales that have only 5 notes (the prefix “penta-” refers to the number five).
First, let’s look at the formulas and how they sound:
Pentatonic Major: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6
Pentatonic Minor: 1, b3, 4, 5, b7
So, how can you use pentatonics?
Pentatonic scales sound good. Like, really good. Pentatonic minor is commonly associated with blues and rock (Hendrix’s Voodoo Child, for example), but they’re found in every genre, including, of course, EDM. Justice uses pentatonic scales a ton. So does Mord Fustang. So does Tiesto. So does just about every musician, whether they realize it or not. So, play around with them. They’re incredibly flexible scales, and they aren’t limited to a particular “vibe” or “sound.”
But…why those notes?
(Warning: this is going to get a little dense, and you don’t need to know the “why” in order to use pentatonics effectively.)
The “backbone” notes of a scale, the notes that give a scale its basic qualities are the 1, 3, and 5. We (usually) want those notes in our scales. With that in mind, we can cut out “unnecessary” notes from a major and minor scale by eliminating notes that are a half-step away from any of those three notes. This is a pretty abstract concept,. I like to think of it like “we eliminate unnecessary notes so that there is more focus on the important ones—the 1, 3, and 5.”
So, let’s look at a major scale formula:
1 2 3^4 5 6 7^1
We can eliminate the notes that are a half-step away from 1, 3 or 5. Those notes are 4 (half-step from 3) and 7 (half-step from 1). Thus, we get pentatonic major: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6.
Same goes for the minor scale:
1 2^b3 4 5^b6 b7 1
Which notes are a half-step from 1, 3, or 5? 2 and b6. Thus, we get 1, b3, 4, 5, b7.
TL;DR: Pentatonic scales consist of 5 notes. They’re incredibly useful and sound amazing. The pentatonic major scale is: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6. The pentatonic minor scale is: 1, b3, 4, 5, b7.