Understanding Pentatonic Scales

2009 April 8

What are pentatonic scales? How are they constructed? What makes them different than major and minor scales? Why are they the most common scale used in the world?

In this article we’re going to take a closer look at these very popular scales and explain them in an easy to understand nonacademic way.

Scales are one of the most important building blocks of music. Notes from scales, combined with rhythm, form the basis of melodies. A haunting, solo melody can be a rich and rewarding musical expression. Therefore a basic knowledge of scales is beneficial to anyone that wishes to make music, especially if they are creating their own tunes or just improvising (“playing from the heart”).

In the two previous articles we looked at diatonic major and minor scales and then the diatonic modes respectively. A good understanding of these principles will help you with the subject of this post exploring pentatonic scales. You might want to review them before diving into this article.

For anyone that plays the Native American flute the term pentatonic scale becomes a constant refrain in almost all conversations about this instrument. Yet very few people know very much beyond the fact that Pent is Greek for five. Even though this is the limit of most people’s knowledge, somehow a lot
of misinformation and incorrect terminology gets passed from player to player, maker to player, maker to maker and player to maker. This misinformation is completely invalid outside of the Native American flute world and for that matter is barely valid for the NAF. As if the Native American Flute world is it’s own little bubble, which it’s not.

If you want to be taken seriously by other musicians, and have the Native American flute taken seriously as well, it’s essential to be able to discuss music at a basic level using the correct terms that are recognized by the larger musical world.
Likewise it’s also good to avoid using terms that are not recognized by musicians, composers and music theorists.

Let’s start by looking at the most common pentatonic scales, the names they are known by and how they are constructed. Then we’ll talk about some of the incorrect terms and names given to them so you can avoid falling into the trap so many NAF players have fallen into.

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1 Comment leave one →
2010 July 20

Seems like when ever I give a flute as a gift I have to explain the scale and why one covers up one of the holes. Thanks Scott for stating it so clearly. I think there is a book inside you trying to get out!

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