What is the pentatonic scale?

Recently I had the good opportunity to train a group of international school students on melodic improvisation. One of the most basic things you can do to improvise your melody is to make use of the pentatonic scale. It’s one of the most basic scales you can use to start making quick improvisational lines based on just 5 notes of the scale. The pentatonic scale consists of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th notes of any scale that you play. So in the key of C, you get, C, D, E, G, A. That’s it!

Loads of musicians use this pentatonic scale as a basis for their solos and improvisational lines. Rock guitarists use them like crazy, Smooth Jazz pianists like David Benoit, Brian Culbertson also use them alot.

Why is this so? Because the pentatonic notes are much more pleasant sounding than the 4th or the 7th notes. Just play these 2 notes repeatedly and you will know what I mean. In traditional western tonality, the 4th and 7th notes are not pleasant by themselves, unless of course you are playing traditional Southeast Asian Gamelan music.

In any case, I got the students to remove their Orff Xylophone 4th and 7th notes, so that only the pentatonic notes remain. Boy, did they have a field day! Each student had a golden chance to exercise his or her creativity by just hitting away and trying different permutations. I also did a spontaneous ‘jam’ with the music teacher at the other end of the classroom – just for the fun of it!

Start being more creative today by playing around with the pentatonic scale! Remember, you don’t have to play them in the exact sequence, move it around, mess around with it, then hear what you have played. It would be great if you have a simple backing track to go along with it just to enhance things a little bit. Don’t shy away, try!