The Pentatonic Scale | Hub Guitar

The Pentatonic Scale

The Pentatonic Scale

If there is a “fundamental” scale for modern music, most learners would come to believe that it is the major scale, which is the basis for harmony and melody. But what if there is an even more fundamental scale?

Where Does Harmony Come From?

Harmony is the (hopefully) pleasing sound of two or more notes combined together, and also the pleasing sound of a series of such combinations. Melody is a (typically) coherent series of pitches, normally distinguished by being pitched higher than any accompanying harmony.

The relationship between harmony and melody is that both are typically created from a common group of pitches, chosen because such pitches complement each other. This group of pitches is called a scale, and this scale can be used both to construct chords and also to compose melodies.

Using the analogy of colors, the scale is sort of like a color palette—a group of tones that fit and complement each other. They can be used in contrast with each other, and blended together.

Choosing a Note to Complement Another

If we are given an initial starting note for the root of our scale, say, “C”, we can choose its most complementary notes with simple math.

The Most Consonsant Intervals

The Octave

The most consonantA note that is consonant with another will seem to agree and fit well when played together with the first. interval is the octave. The octave corresponds to a 2:1 ratio; that is, the higher of the two notes will oscillate at a rate twice as fast as the lowest. However, if we start with “C” and go up an octave, although we have found another note that fits the “C” very well, it is so consonant that it isn't even considered a separate note. The higher octave note “C” oscillates at exactly twice the speed of its lower octave. Because of this, they fit together perfectly and seem to share the same identity, despite the fact that one is higher.

The Perfect Fifth

The next most consonant note is the perfect fifth. It oscillates with a 3:2 ratio. A perfect fifth above our original “C” note is “G”. This note is so firmly in agreement with the root note of C that:

  • It oscillates exactly three times for each two oscillations of the C note.
  • It is distinctly heard as a part of the C note, even when the G note is not even played.
  • Due to the physics of acoustics, the sound of the “G” note is strongly present within the sound of the “C” note, and the two are inseparable.

Other Intervals

We could easily explore the remaining intervals of music, rank them from most consonant to least consonant, and draw upon them to create a scale. But this lesson argues that there is a fundamental interval from which all scales and other intervals can be derived, and that is the interval of the perfect fifth.

Starting with a single note, “C”, and going up a series of perfect fifths will result in all of the notes used in 12-tone music: C, G, D, A, E, B, F♯, C♯, G♯, D♯, A♯, F.

The 12-Tone Scale

Arranged inside of the space of an octave, from lowest to highest, here are the 12 tones again:

C
C
D
D
E
F
F
G
G
A
A
B

There Are No Other Notes?

If the scale is built from a perfect fifth, there are no other notes. Upon arriving at the final note, “F”, if we go up another fifth we end up back at the note C. So this is a closed loop.

Building a Scale from a Series of Fifths

Normally we do not try to make music using all 12 tones equally; this would sound somewhat hectic. Instead we will create a scale from these 12 notes, and use that scale to compose harmonies and melodies.

The process used above to calculate all 12 tones can also be used to calculate the major scale, the most fundamental scale in contemporary music. It is built from the first 6 tones in the above sequence (C,G,D,A,E,B) as well as the last tone (F) which is itself a neighbor of C again and thus closer to that set than F♯.

Since the fifth is the most consonant interval, we can choose our first note in our scale based on that interval. So from our original “C”, and the note one fifth above “G”, we have two notes. Now we can add a perfect fifth to the new note, and we have “D”. Doing so for five notes gives us this combination:

C
G
D
A
E

Since we've jumped a series of fifths, the notes appear out of order. Rearranging the notes from lowest to highest in an octave results in this combination:

C
D
E
G
A

The above combination is known as the C major pentatonic scale. So the pentatonic scale is a basic note palette constructed using the first five notes in a series of fifths.

The pentatonic scale is highly melodic, and it is so consonant that it has been “discovered” by many cultures who had no means of contacting each other in ancient times. Unfortunately, the scale is not rich enough in colors to produce a great deal of harmony. Music built from this scale often places an emphasis on melody and rhythm instead of harmony.

Returning to our example, we'll create a 7-note scale. Adding two more colors to our scale will suddenly give us enough possibilities to create music with different chords.

C
G
D
A
E

The first added color will be another perfect fifth above the last note in the series, E. So now we'll add a B:

C
G
D
A
E
B

The next added color will actually go in the beginning of the series. If you think about it, we’re starting to move very far away from the root note of the scale. So at this point, we've jumped away from the root a total of five times. Jumping up one more time would land us on F♯. That note is actually more distant from the root than the note that is below the root in a series of perfect fifths. So we'll insert an F in front of the C:

F
C
G
D
A
E
B

Once again, rearranging these notes in order results in a familiar structure:

C
D
E
F
G
A
B

The Takeaway

The most universal and fundamental scale is the C major pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scale should be studied for its many melodic possibilities.

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