minor pentatonic scale theory
The minor pentatonic scale could be the oldest living loop of pitches we have. An essential companion of the blues scale, the pentatonic grouping of pitches, is as the name implies, made up of five ( penta ) different pitches. Music historians, the musicologist, have traced this group of pitches back thousands of years. We find this important musical color at the heart of our own native American music as well as other indigenous peoples all around the planet, back through ancient Greek civilization, which spawned the "western" European world, and into the ancient world of the music of the Oriental Far East. In the more historically recent American music, the minor pentatonic color is the essential base color of the blues, which as one of the major roots of our American music, flavors all the various styles. All of the more contemporary blues based styles of today, and especially the myriad of different styles within the "rock" genre, rely heavily on this ancient grouping of pitches. Given this bit of a historical perspective, let's examine some of the theoretical properties of the minor pentatonic color, a potentially very important grouping of pitches for the creative musician.
As the name implies, the pentatonic scale is comprised of five notes, and as with the natural minor scale, the minor pentatonic scale has a relative major, created from the exact same pitches. Comparing the A minor pentatonic scale and it's relative major. Example 1.
|A minor pentatonic||C major pentatonic|
How can one group of pitches create two distinctly different colors? By different intervals? Yep. Let's compare the interval structures of the minor and major pentatonic colors. Here is a chart to examine the intervals measured from the two roots used above in example 1, A for the minor color, C for major. Example 2.
|interval||minor third||perfect 4th||perfect fifth||minor seventh||octave|
|interval||major second||major third||perfect fifth||major sixth||octave|
The key difference is in the third degree above the root, which determines major or minor tonality. The major second and sixth of the major color replace the perfect fourth and minor seventh of the minor color, helping to define the difference between the two colors.
So why is the minor pentatonic group important to the improvising musician? Well, perhaps first in its historical significance, in that melodies created from the minor pentatonic grouping of pitches can truly personify the essence of the "natural" earth. Well crafted melodies created from the minor pentatonic color never fail to connect me with the wonders of the natural world within nature. In the age of technology, techno music and the like, the minor pentatonic color is a sort of "rebel", that has in one sense always been with us, that ignores the "modern" to remind us of our "roots" and connecting us with the natural earth and its consciousness. My melody from the earth, in A pentatonic minor. Example 2a.
Connecting with the cosmos? Yes? No? Try more reverb! Or better, perhaps a native American wind instrument, i.e., a flute or recorder perhaps?
Why else is the minor pentatonic color important? Back when we first started this discussion in the introduction, I postulated the idea that much of our American music is blues based, that when looking at American styles of music, we can find "blue" elements in the writing through the various styles, jazz, blues, rock pop, country, folk etc. The neat theoretical thing about this, in regards to the minor pentatonic color, is that the blues scale and the minor pentatonic are very closely related, and understanding the key difference between these two colors might help provide a solid theoretical and performance basis to expand from. Here are the two groups. Using C for our tonal center. Example 3.
|A minor pentatonic||A blues|
Can you hear the subtle difference in the sound between these two groups. Creating the blues color from the minor pentatonic color we simply add one pitch which perfectly splits the octave in half. Any ideas as to which one? Our additional pitch in the blues group is the tritone, the D# above the root A. The tritone pitch adding an additional "blue" element to the minor pentatonic color, the one which just might be the most powerful. So, sharing five identical pitches, in a sense these two groups are said to be closely related and often function in a similar manner within various styles. So, where does the tritone come from?
Another cool aspect along these lines is, what happens if we insert a tritone interval, created between two pitches, into the minor pentatonic scale? Example 4.
|A minor pentatonic||A natural minor|
The "inserted" tritone interval of the natural minor group is created by adding the 2nd scale degree B and the 6th degree F. See any "big picture" connections? Good chance that I make more of this historical / theoretical connection than anyone else on the planet, but thats cool, its my book. Isn't A natural minor theoretically related to C major? Sure is. Example 5.
|A natural minor||C major|
Exact same pitches, the difference in color is created by the intervalic distances between the pitches. The idea is simply that if we add a "tritone" to either of the more ancient major or minor pentatonic scales, we can create the blues and the relative major / minor scales, the two more "modern" groups of pitches from which we have created our American music over the last few centuries.
So what do it mean? Well, basically that these three groups of pitches ( pentatonic, blues, major / minor ) are very important to the creation of our indigenous American styles of blues, jazz, folk, rock and roll, pop, rap etc. And that if indeed it is the "insertion" of the tritone into the "older" five note pentatonic major and minor groups which "creates" the major / relative minor and blues scales, then perhaps one must ask, where did the tritone come from to re-color the ancient pentatonic groups of American music? By my thinking it basically comes from within the Euro developed equal tempered system when the diverse elements of American cultures merged back in the 1700's or so.
The above theoretical musings are simply the "exploring" of the resource, creating and trying to answer questions and to "distill" the theory down into terms we can easily grasp, retain and utilize, and perhaps create even more questions to be explored.
Another important theoretical aspect of the minor pentatonic color is in regards to the playing. Do you recall the discussion with the major pentatonic group that described the possibility that there were no really bad notes when creating lines from the major pentatonic scale over appropriate chord changes? Well, the same applies to the minor pentatonic group and in many instances, this is the first scale that new players learn for this very reason. The minor pentatonic's softer side, as compared to the natural minor scale, helps beginning players to be able to sound cool right from the start, which can provide that initial musical magic so essential for inspiring new learners. In blues and rock and roll improvisation, the minor pentatonic color is way essential, check out the following idea, straight minor pentatonic up and down over different harmonies. Example 6.
|A minor||A min 7||C 7||C maj 7|
Hear any bad pitches? Cool. Easily recognizable tunes from the minor pentatonic group? Eric Clapton's "Layla" is classic minor pentatonic coolness, using the pure, raw, earthy, powerful, minor pentatonic color to tell a epic love story.
In the jazz world, the minor pentatonic group plays various roles. Well look at this color more in depth in the application discussions further on in the text, but here is one sort of common use of the minor pentatonic color in jazz improvisation. Players call it taking it out. Oftentimes in the improv sections during performance, a melodic or harmonic cell or motif is created. This cellular idea is then permutated through some type of filter or sequence. Example 7, here is the tail end of example 6 moved up chromatically.
|C minor||C# minor||D minor||Eb minor|
Here is a lick using a similar "cell", different permutation moved downward through the chromatic filter. Example 8.
|G min 7||F# min 7||F min 7||E min 7|
Interesting eh? So easy to remove the sense of tonality and the forces of tonal gravity. So, do you have a better sense of this potentially important color and its theoretical properties? It is a cool and ancient color this minor pentatonic. Here is a chart spelling out the pitches for each of the 12 minor pentatonic groups, sequenced by the essential cycle of fourths. Example 9.
|scale degree / interval||1/
|A min pent.||A||C||D||E||G||A|
|D min pent.||D||F||G||A||C||D|
|G min pent.||G||Bb||C||D||F||G|
|C min pent.||C||Eb||F||G||Bb||C|
|F min pent.||F||Ab||Bb||C||Eb||F|
|Bb min pent.||Bb||Db||Eb||F||Ab||Bb|
|Eb min pent.||Eb||Gb||Ab||Bb||Db||Eb|
|Ab min pent.||Ab||Cb||Db||Eb||Gb||Ab|
|C# min pent.||C#||E||F#||G#||B||C#|
|F# min pent.||F#||A||B||C#||E||F#|
|B min pent.||B||D||E||F#||A||B|
|E min pent.||E||G||A||B||D||E|
|A minor pentatonic|
|D minor pentatonic|
|G minor pentatonic|
|C minor pentatonic|
|F minor pentatonic|
|Bb minor pentatonic|
|Eb minor pentatonic|
|Ab minor pentatonic|
|C# minor pentatonic|
|F# minor pentatonic|
|B minor pentatonic|
|E minor pentatonic|
Perhaps interesting is that for each of the minor pentatonic colors under your fingers, it's relative major pentatonic color is already there. Yippee! Add one pitch a tritone above the root to any of the minor pentatonic scales under your fingers and the minor blues color emerges. Add two pitches creating the interval of a tritone, the 2nd and 6th, to any of the minor pentatonic colors under your fingers and the natural minor color emerges. Reconfigure the natural minor color intervalically and its relative major scale emerges. Pretty neat huh? Is this theory cool or what? Perhaps it is all about the intervals? Here is a 24 bar minor pentatonic tour, created by running one funky idea created from the minor pentatonic group of pitches idea, transposed through the 12 keys using the cycle of fourths, one bar per key. Example 11.
Easy enough huh? Yeh right.
|Where to next?|
"A mountain is moved one rock at a time." Ancient reverb.