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The Major Pentatonic Scale - Bringing It Full Circle

If you search on Google for "major pentatonic", 95% of the search results point to guitar-based websites. And this is quite logical as the standard tuning of the guitar gravitates naturally towards the world of pentatonic. However, the major pentatonic is an excellent and powerful tool in composition as well!
We are going to explore how the major pentatonic goes full circle around the Circle of Fifths and how this knowledge can lead to new and fresh ideas for your next composition!

The world of pentatonic and the Circle of Fifths build a powerful connection, which you, the composer, should not neglect as it opens up so many musical opportunities. We'll dive into the reflection of the major pentatonic scale and how this refers back to the Circle of Fifths and other root cycles (RCs).

The Major Pentatonic Scale

The major (and also the minor) pentatonic scale follows the step-wise movement of the Circle of Fifths. We've explained this concept in the article about Pentatonic Scales in detail.

Our goal, for now, is not to construct that scale again but to find out in what way it lines up with the Circle of Fifths. Let's start on the C note and move through the RC5 in the clockwise direction. This, of course, leads to the pentatonic major scale over the C root tone.

Since the E was the last note in our succession, let's make this E into a new root tone and continue the step-wise motion until we've created the pentatonic major scale again.

And finally, let's repeat that process one more time, starting on the G# (or Ab) root tone. Now we get back to the original starting point, the C note.

In conclusion, we can describe the full Circle of Fifths with three different root tones and the major pentatonic scale. You might have seen it already; those three root tones create the Root Cycle 4!

Remember: In conclusion, we can describe the full Circle of Fifths with three different root tones and the major pentatonic scale. You might have seen it already; those three root tones create the Root Cycle 4!

Now, this already is practical knowledge as we can potentially use the major pentatonic scale to move elegantly through the RC5. But the three different root tones (the RC4) connect to another concept as well, that is the reflection!

Reflecting the Major Pentatonic Scale

Let's bring up the horizontal formula (HF), which describes the distances between all the scale tones involved, starting from the root. For any major pentatonic scale, it reads 2 -- 2 -- 3 -- 2!

Once we know the HF, going into the reflection is a very simple next step. Whatever distance we went up needs to be inverted so that we move down in the same manner. All scales have a reflective partner, except for the palindromes, like the Dorian mode. Essentially, we keep all the distances between the scale tones but change the direction from ascending to descending.

It's funny because the scale that we've just created via reflection remains the major pentatonic, but on a root tone that has moved four half-steps down. So, from a C root, we walked down to the Ab. And this relation remains true when we reflect the notes on the Ab major pentatonic scale (see bar 3 above).

In conclusion: The RC5 defines the major pentatonic scale, and the RC4 organizes it across all the twelve tones available to us.

Scale reflections work nicely in composition and also inspire to go to musical places that are not very obvious sometimes. We cover the application of scale reflection in much more detail inside the Composition Course but, for now, let's go into a short demonstration that shows how you can put these roots into action.

Here's a quick sketch based 100% on the major pentatonic scale in conjunction with the RC4.

Here's a short explanation of the steps above so that you can follow the decision-making.

  • Step 1: Since this article led us to the RC4-relation in the bass, let's write out the pentatonic scale as one big vertical structure, starting on the root tone.
  • Step 2: The gaps between the notes in each bar are not very elegant, so we use Position Change (PC) to close them up. See how this even creates chromatic harmony?
  • Step 3: Since the root is also present in the treble, we can remove them in the bass. This way, we open up the opportunity to write something else in the lower register later. And to give a bit more space around the lead line, we dropped the second voice down by one octave and got into open harmony this way.

But the sketch alone doesn't sound convincing yet. So, let's hear an orchestrated version of that sketch so that you get a clearer picture of how far you can take this idea quickly.

And for all members, we've created a 20-min. VIP bonus video that goes into the step-wise creation of this short fanfare and explains the orchestration and decision-making! Don't miss to watch this.

Members: Please log in with your Academy account first and then click on the button to get full access.

(If you are not logged in, it won't work, but I know you'll try anyway!)

Modulating With the Major Pentatonic Scale

For this section, we want to stick to the C major pentatonic. You know that all of the scale tones are located on the upper right part of the Circle of Fifths (provided that C is on the top position).

2-intervals or major seconds are dominant and want to resolve in the way of the authentic cadence. We've written a whole article about the world of Dominant Intervals in case you want to explore this subject more in-depth.

If we focused on all the 2-intervals from the C major pentatonic scale, we quickly could move to other tonal centers. 

Those resolutions in succession almost sound like they create a tonal center around D. G becomes the IV-chord and A the V-chord over a D tonic. Now, if you look at the Circle of Fifths and go to the area of the C major pentatonic scale, you realize that D is the central axis between the five tones! This symmetry can be used to create a new tonal center!

At this point, you might ask why this is important, right? Well, by using this type of modulation, we can switch from one set of an RC4 to another one. In total, there are four different sets before everything starts to repeat itself:

  • Set 1: C --- E --- Ab --- (C)
  • Set 2: Db --- F --- A --- (Db)
  • Set 3: D --- F# --- Bb --- (D)
  • Set 4: Eb --- G --- B --- (Eb)

Now you can start with the major pentatonic scale over a C root and move to any other tonal center freely!

Emotional Use

This material is supposed to inspire you, not to define a set of rules that you have to stick to. However, here's some food for thought that hopefully helps you evaluate the emotional context of when to use these concepts.

Because of our Western culture, we are used to hearing scales and musical keys, especially the Church modes, next to some other seven-tone scales. By putting the major pentatonic through an RC4, we purposely combine musical elements that cannot be part of the same musical key. The major pentatonic scale is very simple to follow and connects many different musical cultures. But the RC4 creates almost a chromatic context. The more we mix the scale tones from the various RC4-roots, the closer we get to a chromatic line (see below).

That can result in an emotional break because we leave the current tonal center! However, it also becomes a very efficient tool in musical storytelling. So, whenever you want to create contrast sequentially, remember the RC4 as an opportunity.

Focus on the emotional response that you want your audience to feel. That's an excellent rule of thumb for decision-making. Use the technique to construct several musical ideas and then make the final decision based on your taste and emotional response.


The major pentatonic scale is very versatile and can be used in so many ways in composition. For now, remember that the reflection of the major pentatonic equals a shift by four half-steps down! This RC4 can bring you through the full Circle of Fifths.

Put this knowledge and the following list of takeaways from this article into your bag of tricks:

  • the HF of the major pentatonic reads 2 -- 2 -- 3 -- 2
  • every 2-interval in the major pentatonic scale is dominant and can resolve to a new root
  • via those resolutions, you can switch through the four sets of the RC4
  • focus on the emotional response that you are getting from a tool or technique
  • context is everything, and your emotional response should fit into it


Try the concept of reflection on the C minor pentatonic scale on your own. The process remains the same as described in this article, but the results will change (because the HF is different). You'll come across a lot of musical ideas and inspiration this way. And if you are serious about bringing your composition skills to the next level, I'd love to welcome you inside the Academy!

Frank Herrlinger

Co-founder and instructor at Music Interval Theory Academy