The Power of the Pentatonic Scale

The Power of the Pentatonic Scale

Melanie Faye is one of the most promising guitar players we have heard of in recent years. The Alabama native was born in the late 1990s, and her big break came after she posted a video showcasing her skills on the Instagram social network. That video went viral as soon as she posted it in 2017; since then, Faye has played with rock bands, rappers, R&B artists, and even country music acts.

Faye's guitar techniques are complex. She studied jazz at the Nashville School of the Arts, but she has developed a style that greatly appeals to "music nerds." Her dexterity and high level of musicianship quickly got the attention of legendary guitar brand Fender, which she now endorses. Although Faye injects quite a few elements of blues and jazz improvisation into her guitar playing, she heavily relies on the power of the C Major pentatonic scale.

Musicians such as Faye understand that you simply cannot go wrong with the pentatonic scale. Thanks to the work of archaeologists and music historians, we know that the power of the pentatonic scale dates back to ancient times. In 2008, an archaeological site in Germany yielded a flute dating back to the paleolithic period, and this artifact was found to have been tuned to the pentatonic scale. What this discovery establishes is that ancient musicians were familiar with scales long before Greek thinkers such as Pythagoras studied them as part of early music theory.

Students of the Prodigies program will become familiar with the pentatonic scale naturally; this is because the method emphasizes the learning of music theory. By the time they are able to identify and play notes on the Prodigies Desk Bells or other instruments for beginners, they will be able to understand the pentatonic scale intuitively. Ideally, students will progress to the piano or other keyboard instrument where they will learn standard scales of seven and eight notes, so the pentatonic scale will feel like a familiar concept.

What's the Pentatonic Scale?

The pentatonic scale is made up of five notes; they are arranged in the order of the C Major scale. The pentatonic scale is not restricted to only those five notes, though; it can be any five notes of a major scale. When thinking about pentatonic scales, you simply need to choose the notes you wish to use. It must include the notes C, D, E, G, and A when you start practicing.

In recent years, the power of the pentatonic scale has come back into fashion, especially as it is used by guitarists. One thing you need to know about the pentatonic scale is that there are five ways to use it. The way to use it in the blues, the jazz style, and the country style is slightly different. Regardless of the technique, the pentatonic scale is the ultimate vehicle for improvisation.

How To Use It

You are not limited to playing the five notes of the scale in a flat manner. There are five ways to play the pentatonic scale:

  • Tonic
  • Supertonic
  • Mediant
  • Submediant
  • Dominant

These five ways of using the scale can be found in the key of C Major and the key of G Major. These keys are the most common on a guitar and therefore make the best starting points for players to learn this scale on six-string instruments. Bass players can easily go up and down the scale, because their instruments feature pentatonic design. Let's go through the instrumental performance techniques that apply to the pentatonic scale:

  • Tonic: Tonic is the first note in a scale, like the first note of the C Major scale. We find the first note in the scale in a key, which is our starting point, by starting off with it.
  • Supertonic: The second note in a scale is the supertonic.We
    can easily find it on the C Major scale, and it is generally D.
  • Mediant: The mediant is the note that is one step higher than the supertonic. We find the mediant in the key of C by playing the third note of the C Major scale.
  • Submediant: The fourth pentatonic note is the submediant.
  • Dominant: This manner of playing with pentatonic scale forms the basis of blues and jazz rhythms on string instruments.

If you stick to the basics of the pentatonic scale on the guitar, bass, or ukulele, your mind will be able to split its attention between the strings and frets. The manner in which you play will be dictated by your fretwork; at the same time, you will be thinking about the scale itself as you pick or strum.

The Innate Power of the Pentatonic Scale

When Pythagoras started laying out the foundations of music theory, his point of reference was Babylonian music, which historians determine to have been heavily centered on the pentatonic scale. Let's keep in mind that Pythagoras did not have the benefit of knowing about the aforementioned bone flute discovered by archaeologists in the 21st century; nonetheless, he thought that the pentatonic scale felt natural to humans because that is the way we are biologically wired. Modern research confirms this ancient observation.

Think about the way we speak to our babies; chances are that you actually sing to them in the pentatonic scale without realizing it, and it does not matter if you use baby talk or prefer to speak normally so that your child gets a head start in language development. In 2010, researchers in Belgium listened to the language interactions between mothers and their babies in order to determine the prevalence of singing. The results of the study suggest that pentatonic communications took place more than 80% of the time.

Pentatonic Harmonization and Synchrony

Going deeper into the Belgian research mentioned above, we can safely assume that we sing to our babies because we know they will like it. This underscores the theory that posits we are naturally drawn to C, D, E, G, and A from birth. This may also explain why we are attracted to birdsong. Furthermore, research shows that we seek validation in terms of synchrony and harmony when playing the pentatonic scale.

We are delighted when babies sing back to us, and not necessarily because we think this is a cute interaction. If we communicate in a pentatonic manner, we unconsciously expect a pentatonic reply. In other words, it pleases us to hear the scale. We can say that we are being playful and that babies want to be entertained, but it is more accurate to say that we are being human. This is why we really sing nursery rhymes. When seasoned musicians perform live in concert, they know that they can elicit reactions from the audience through pentatonic clues.

In 2017, a crowd of 65,000 rock fans gathered at Hyde Park in London for a Green Day concert. While waiting for the concert, organizers played music over the PA system, and when Queen's iconic "Bohemian Rhapsody" came on, the audience sang in astonishing unison for six minutes. Even Brian May's guitar solo was sung through onomatopoeia; entire sections of the crowd took turns so that they could nail the chorus and verses in perfect harmony. This is a good example of the pentatonic scale at play. Freddie Mercury was a major fan of structuring songs in a pentatonic manner.

Harmony and the Pentatonic Scale

In music, harmony is considered to be the relationship between pitches. The relationship between notes in a chord may be perfect, imperfect, or dissonant. The major, minor and seventh chords are the most common. Chords with fewer than four notes are rarely used because they do not fit the definition of a triad. The key difference between the minor and major chords is that minor chords have a minor interval and major chords have a major interval, e.g. G minor is a dissonant chord because it has the minor interval of the supertonic (G) and the submediant (D). Perfect and consonant chords have the same pitch distance between each note. In perfect chords, a perfect fourth is one diatonic interval, a perfect fifth is one chromatic interval and a perfect octave is two diatonic intervals.

When you become thoroughly familiar with the pentatonic scale, you will get a "sky's the limit" feeling with regard to performance and composition. In the end, the power of the pentatonic scale can be boiled down to human nature.


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