major pentatonic scale theory
With one grouping built right into the piano keyboard as the black keys, a true source of musical joy and an essential companion of the major scale, the older pentatonic grouping of pitches creates a joyous, loving musical environment. Do you recall this phrase? Example 1.
Sound familiar? Make ya smile? Cool, that's part of the major pentatonic magic, making people smile. No wonder so many wonderful classic American melodies are created from this color. This "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" eventually moves to include other scale pitches beyond the major pentatonic group, but I thought this phrase is so familiar and so pentatonic that it was a cool choice even though it moves through to another melodic color. Other classic major pentatonic lines?
So in theory, simply five ( penta ) different pitches, the intervals of which create a closed looping of pitches. Folk songs for written for children of all ages often employ the major pentatonic color, being for the most part bright and cheery and easier to sing due to their uncomplicated theoretical nature. The pentatonic color also creates a strong "oriental or Asian" kind of environment, which is part of the ancient pentatonic group's historical background. In one aspect of the more "modern" jazz world, when straight ahead elements were initially combined with the world of rock music way back during the 1960s, a new style of expression was created called "jazz / rock fusion." This style evolved during the 80s and 90s towards what today is called loosely dubbed "easy listening jazz", a style in which the major pentatonic color is an important compositional component, often used in the extended blowing sections. In the rock and blues worlds, the pentatonic colors, and perhaps more so the minor color than the major, are key components for creating these styles of American music. So if your musical tastes lean in any of the above directions, this major pentatonic grouping of pitches could be a pretty important component on you creative palette.
Among musicologists, it is generally believed that the pentatonic color emerged prior to the major scale color. In more recent times, the last 500 years or so, the development of equal temper, which is from one perspective based on the major / relative minor grouping of pitches, has become so dominant in European and then later in American music that I though it best to derive the "older" pentatonic color from the "newer" major scale group of pitches throughout the text. This is simply to ease explanation of the theory as so much of American music is created from the major scales. One cool perspective of this history regarding American music comes from the idea of adding the tritone. Click and go check it out if your curious about this possibility, otherwise it is... as you guessed it, back to the theory.
Lets look at the intervalic construction of the C major pentatonic group. Example 2.
|interval from the root||root||maj. 2nd||maj. 3rd||per. 5th||maj. 6th||octave|
So, all major or perfect intervals... Here is the sound of the above chart, highlighting each of the pitches from the root or tonic pitch C. Example 2a.
Such a nice warm color eh? Tis is perhaps our softest melodic color? What are your thoughts on this idea? One of the very cool aspects of the major pentatonic color is that all of the pitches in the group work well in consonant, diatonic improvisation. It has been often said that there are no real "bad pitches" in the pentatonic world when used soloing over diatonic changes but perhaps an added responsibility and challenge in creating meaningful melodic lines? I guess that goes with everything though, but be it as it may, how is it that there are said to be no "bad" pitches in this group? Lets look at the intervalic formula for creating this wonderfully exotic and colorful group of pitches and see why. Example 3.
|interval formula||whole step||whole step||minor 3rd||whole step||min 3rd|
Interesting to note that there are no half step intervals in the pentatonic formula. There are two in the major scale group. Lets compare the major pentatonic scale intervalic formula with the major scale intervalic formula. Example 3a.
|pentatonic intervals||-||1||1||min 3rd||-||1||min 3rd||-|
|major scale pitches||C||D||E||F||G||A||B||C|
|major scale intervals||-||1||1||1 / 2||1||1||1||1 / 2|
Here is the sound of the above chart comparing these two important melodic colors for the creative musician. Example 3b.
|major pentatonic color||major scale|
So, we simply use the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th pitches of the major scale color to create the major pentatonic color? So, the main difference between the two groups is the presence of the 2 half step intervals in the major scale. Any idea what interval is created between these two pitches? Two reasons emerge as to why perhaps there may not be any "bad pitches" in the pentatonic group when used to create melodic ideas over a major chord. First, is that the pitches associated with the two half step intervals in the major scale create the tritone interval within the major scale grouping of pitches. This tritone, which is said to be "dissonant", is a big part of the equal tempered program. Second, that if we remove the two pitches from the major scale which creates the tritone, the 5 pitches of the pentatonic color emerge, all of which are said to be "consonant" with the pitches of the major triad. Here is the sound of the 2 pitch tritone over a major chord, followed by each of the pitches placed individually over the same harmony. Example 4.
|2 pitch tritone||tritone interval|
Sound dissonant enough? Theoretically, is it in the "removal" of this tritone from the major scale color that creates the major pentatonic group of pitches and gives the pentatonic group the quality of having no "bad pitches" when used to create lines over diatonic chord changes, as created from the major scale? Yep. No tritone, no aural tension eh? Right. As we can see in the comparison above, the tritone interval exists within the fourth and seventh degree's of the major scale. Perhaps the choice of using the pentatonic color to create some of the styles of music mentioned above is based on this quality of a lack of "dissonance" in the music. A subtle difference between these two groups is in the nature and quality of the sense they create of being at "rest." Lets explore in a major tonal environment with and without a leading tone. Sound the following idea created from the major scale grouping of pitches. Example 5.
The melodic direction and sequential nature of this lick creates an energy and tension that seeks to "rest", wanting to resolve. Part of this energy is created by the melodic sequence that is repeated two times, and part of the tension is created by the gradual descending of the pitches. Holding on to the leading tone "B" in bar 20 increases the "tension" wanting to resolve. This melodic tension is "released" by moving up half step to the pitch C in bar 20, establishing C as the center of this particular musical universe and creating a sense of coming to "rest."
In comparison, the major pentatonic group, with the absence of any half step interval in its melodic formula is more laid back. No half steps, no leading tone. No leading tone generally means less tension or tonal gravity. So often it is the leading tone which sets up the resolution and release of artistic tension within the line. Here is the above line "pentatonicized", i.e., the leading tone / 2 pitch tritone has been removed. Example 6.
The resolution to C in bar 24 is expected, but not quite so "urgent" or dramatic. By omitting the "leading tone" from our "group of pitches to create melodic ideas", we soften the resolving tension of the group, but by no means is the dramatic potential of the pentatonic group diminished in any way. Power from rhythmic ideas, dynamics, registration etc., are all equal to pitch selection in creating musical climaxes. Artistically, we can mix the differing resolving qualities of these two groups to better control the creation and release of tension within our music, create humor and surprises, as we lead our listeners along our musical storyline. As we artistically mature, this ability to create tension and the how and when of its release can become a great source of joy in our lives. This ability is something to recognize, develop and use at our discretion in creating our music as well as perhaps to better understand the myriad of different artistic creations that surround us. Cool with this idea varying degrees of tension and release?
As with the major scale, we can build the major pentatonic grouping of pitches on each of the 12 points of the chromatic scale. Here is a chart with the 12 key centers listed by perfect fourths to help you get started in learning the pentatonic color from each of the 12 starting points provided by the equal tempered system. This page closes with these 12 scales written out in standard musical notation, try to play along on your chosen instrument and get these groups under your fingers. Example 7.
|scale degree / interval||1||2||3||5||6||8|
|C pentatonic major||C||D||E||G||A||C|
|F pentatonic major||F||G||A||C||D||F|
|Bb pentatonic major||Bb||C||D||F||G||Bb|
|Eb pentatonic major||Eb||F||G||Bb||C||Eb|
|Ab pentatonic major||Ab||Bb||C||Eb||F||Ab|
|Db pentatonic major||Db||Eb||F||Ab||Bb||Db|
|Gb pentatonic major||Gb||Ab||Bb||Db||Eb||Gb|
|B pentatonic major||B||C#||D#||F#||G#||B|
|E pentatonic major||E||F#||G#||B||C#||E|
|A pentatonic major||A||B||C#||E||F#||A|
|D pentatonic major||D||E||F#||A||B||D|
|G pentatonic major||G||A||B||D||E||G|
Here are the above scales simply notated. Perhaps think about expanding the pitches of each group your entire range on your chosen instrument. Having the chromatic scale already under your fingers will help locate all of the pitches in the following exercises. Here are the 12 major pentatonic groups. Example 8.
|C major pentatonic group|
|F major pentatonic group|
|Bb major pentatonic group|
|Eb major pentatonic group|
|Ab major pentatonic group|
|Db major pentatonic group|
|Gb major pentatonic group|
|B major pentatonic group|
|E major pentatonic group|
|A major pentatonic group|
|D major pentatonic group|
|G major pentatonic group|
Hearing the major pentatonic color in G is sounds so common, thanks to the six stringed guitar I guess. Well, can you play them all? More "grist for the mill eh?" Do we ever need them all? No not really. Just can't think of any tunes that use all 12 major pentatonic scales. Do you know one? Please let me know! So, why do we need all 12 groups under our fingers? Well, mainly for jazz artists in that in creating improvised musical dialogue, so often we need to "borrow" just a wee bit of say Gb major pentatonic as we approach the common key center of F major. Try it, it's just one cool way among many to get there. Another common jazz lick is to simply move one idea up or down chromatically, which is facilitated by having the 12 groups under the fingers. So again, rarely if ever do we need them all in one tune, but so often borrow bits and pieces of the 12 possibilities to enhance the tonal center of the music we are creating. Cool with this? It's just the theoretical explanation of what we hear and do all the time in creating American music.
|Where to next?|
Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes real happiness. It is not obtained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose. Helen Keller