The Mighty Pentatonic Scale

Pianote  /  Scales and Keys  /  UPDATED May 2, 2023

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If you play piano, the pentatonic scale is one of the most useful tools you can learn. The pentatonic scale sounds good nearly all the time. It will also appeal to most listeners because it appears in practically every musical human culture in the world.

In this post, we’ll discuss how to create a pentatonic scale, why it works so well, and tips on how to use it to improvise.

  1. The Major Pentatonic Scale Formula
  2. The Minor Pentatonic Scale Formula
  3. FREE Downloadable Poster
  4. Why the Pentatonic Scale Works so Well
  5. How to Improvise on the Piano Using the Pentatonic Scale

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The Major Pentatonic Scale Formula

When people talk about “the pentatonic scale,” they’re usually referring to the major pentatonic scale. The major pentatonic scale is built on degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 of the major scale. For example, this is the pentatonic scale in C Major:

For the note readers, here’s what that looks like in standard notation:

The Minor Pentatonic Scale Formula

The minor pentatonic scale is built on degrees 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7 of the minor scale. In A Minor, the minor pentatonic looks like this on the keyboard:

And this is what it looks like in standard notation:

All Pentatonic Scales In One Place

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Why the Pentatonic Scale Works So Well

If the pentatonic scale sounds familiar to you, you’re on to something. It’s incredibly popular in modern pop and rock music. It also has a long history stretching back thousands and thousands of years. Here are some more intriguing reasons why the pentatonic scale is so magical:

Most humans will recognize the pentatonic scale

Not everything in music is universal across humans. The seven-note diatonic scale that is everywhere in Western music doesn’t exist in every musical culture, for example. But practically every music-making culture in the world recognizes the pentatonic scale. It’s been found everywhere, from Asia and Africa to Europe and North America. 

The pentatonic scale seems embedded into our psyche as humans. You can see Bobby McFerrin demonstrate this here, where the audience intuitively sings the right note on the pentatonic scale all together. According to McFerrin, this works in every audience he’s presented to, no matter where they are in the world.

The major pentatonic scale avoids dissonance

Consider the standard C Major scale:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B

The bolded notes are the ones missing from the C Major pentatonic scale. They are the fourth and seventh degree of the scale. Together, these notes form a tritone, a particularly harsh-sounding interval. Apart, you’ll also notice that F and B form semitones with their neighboring notes. These attributes make them more difficult to work with because these notes are more prone to dissonance.

But if you stick to pentatonic scale notes, you automatically omit these notes. This makes the scale very “safe” and versatile.

🎹 FYI! Just because the fourth and seventh scale degrees are considered more dissonant doesn’t mean that you can’t play them ever. In fact, they make for very good passing notes. The general rule of thumb is to simply not linger on weaker notes. So, don’t emphasize those scale degrees, but absolutely use them if you want to!

The pentatonic scale and the blues scale are closely related

Another reason you might like the sound of the pentatonic scale is because of its similarity to the blues scale. While the blues scale is less universal than the pentatonic one, it is widely used in popular music and will probably sound familiar and enjoyable to modern music lovers.

So what’s the difference between the pentatonic and the blues scale? The standard blues scale is just a pentatonic scale with an added “blue” note. In the major pentatonic scale, the blue note is ♭3. In the minor pentatonic scale, the blue note is ♭5.

How to Improvise on the Piano Using the Pentatonic Scale

A common habit beginners fall into is playing the pentatonic scale up and down over a chord progression. While this sounds perfectly fine, it can quickly get stale. If you want to challenge your creativity and come up with more interesting and unique pentatonic improvisations, here are some tips:

Double up on notes and add articulation

You’re not limited to playing notes one after another! Simply doubling up your notes to play dyads or even triads can level up the sophistication of a solo. When you double up notes, thirds and sixths are perhaps the “safest” combinations to sound nice. But experiment with different note combinations from your pentatonic scale.

And don’t forget to add interesting articulations to your notes. Try trilling two notes. Or, slide into a pentatonic note from a passing tone a semi-tone away. Experiment with dynamics and don’t forget about using a variety of rhythms!

Make room for silence

A good solo doesn’t need to have as many notes as possible! You can take breaks. And in fact, rests between notes can be the difference between an elementary solo and a more sophisticated one. Knowing how to use silence is a big part of playing music.

The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.

W.A. Mozart

Learn pentatonic modes

Just like diatonic scales, pentatonic scales have modes too! And each mode evokes its own style or mood. More advanced pianists may want to learn how pentatonic modes work and how they can be used to avoid Avoid Notes in jazz theory.

The pentatonic scale is just one of many music theory tools we use when we make music. Remember: improvisation isn’t a magical ability you need to be born with. It’s a skill. As you become more comfortable with improvisation, the pentatonic scale, and the language of music in general, your solos will improve. 

If you want more tips on leveling up your improvisation, check out these lessons:

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Charmaine Li is a Vancouver writer who has played piano for over 20 years. She holds an Associate diploma (ARCT) from the Royal Conservatory of Music and loves writing about the ways in which music—and music learning—affects the human experience. Charmaine manages The Note. Learn more about Charmaine here.

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