TL;DR Music Theory: Pentatonic Scales

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.

Comments 9

  1. why dont your write the notes instead of numbers?

    Pentatonic Major: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 ??????????????????????????
    Pentatonic Minor: 1, b3, 4, 5, b7 ??????????????????????????

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      Great question, mike! I was actually hoping someone would ask that soon.

      Music theory looks at the “structure” of things like scales, chords, etc. Music theory tends to use numbers because “notes” are manifestations of those numbers. “Notes” are numbers (or better yet, “values”) in certain keys.

      To better explain, let’s take an example. If I explained music theory in terms of notes, I would say the pentatonic scale in A minor is “A, C, D, E, and G.”

      How would you find the pentatonic scale in G minor, then? You would have to learn it separately, as “G minor pentatonic.”

      BUT! If we explain it in terms of the value of a note in a scale (or the “number”), and I tell you pentatonic minor has the formula “1, b3, 4, 5, b7,” then you can apply that formula and adapt it to any key. What is A pentatonic minor? Well, just find the 1, b3, 4, 5, and b7 notes based on A. What is the E minor pentatonic scale, then? Just find the 1, b3, 4, 5, and b7 notes of E.

      In essence, numbers are more flexible. Numbers help show the “formulas” behind things, whereas notes mainly tell us only where that note is located on, for example, a piano.

      Does that make a little more sense? Music theory can be pretty abstract and hard to understand sometimes. I suggest taking a look back at the original post with the fundamentals of theory, because I explain the basics in terms of numbers. You can find them here: http://www.edmprod.com/music-theory-the-tldr-version/

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  2. Thanks a TONNN for that article, Seriously that helped me a lot.
    anyways, what happens on D or B Pentatonic Minor Scale? Can you even play their Pentatonic Minor Scales in modern western instruments?

    Thanks again!

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