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Pentatonic Scales - Like Nobody Used Them Before
The various Pentatonic scales are a fantastic resource for musical inspiration and work universally around the globe throughout almost all the different cultures. They virtually connect us, humans, on an artistic level. In this article, I want to present a new and fresh perspective on how you can use and connect some of the various Pentatonic scales to create exciting colors and find unique sounds that set your work apart and make it special. Sounds good? Let's do this!
"Penta" means five, so pentatonic translates freely to "five tones". Numerous scales meet that requirement, and you should know at least the three most important ones. In particular, that's the major pentatonic, the minor pentatonic, and the Lydian dominant pentatonic. Let's talk about some Interval Theory first so you understand what we refer to with "like nobody used them before".
The Major Pentatonic Scale
Most composers know this scale as an extraction from the Ionian mode. And while this is a valid point of view, the major pentatonic scale also connects strongly to the Circle of Fifths. Pick one starting tone, which becomes your root tone, and go four more steps in the clockwise direction. That's your major pentatonic scale.
Here's how this all translates into music notation. Simply go up from your root tone in perfect fifths (or 7s for seven half-steps), and you'll get to the tones needed for the major pentatonic scale. Diatonically-speaking, we end with scale tones 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 from the major scale (Ionian).
This scale alone opens up enough musical material for a lifetime, and the sound of it is beautiful to our ears. Partly because you can't create any bad notes when only using the major pentatonic (this is also true for the other two that we are going to explore in a second).
The idea of why this scale sounds good becomes even more apparent when we look at the horizontal formula.
Horizontal Formula: That's the distance in half-steps between all the notes. There are only 2s and one 3-interval. Usually, the 1s on a scale become potential problem spots.
The Minor Pentatonic Scale
The major and minor pentatonic scales are strongly related as they share the same set of tones but organized differently and over another root tone. You probably came across the A minor pentatonic scale as an extraction from the Aeolian mode. The A minor pentatonic scale is the pendant to the C major pentatonic scale. However, for our explorations, we want to build the minor pentatonic on the same root tone as the major one.
In contrast to the major pentatonic, the minor one is a succession of ascending perfect fourths (or 5s for five half-steps), but there's one more crucial difference between the two.
Important Note: The minor pentatonic consists of stacked 5s on top of each other, and the root tone is the second note in that sequence.
Similar to the C major pentatonic scale, the horizontal formula only returns 3s and 2s, which makes this scale very easy to use in composition. We'll discover what that means a bit later in this article.
The Lydian Dominant Pentatonic Scale
This five-tone scale lives on a succession of 2s (or major seconds), and again, the second note in that sequence becomes the root tone. It's interesting to see that all those scales connect to the equivalents, which are notes (horizontal or vertical) that are spaced in equal distances.
In another article, we've discussed how the Circle of Fifths contains all the other Root Cycles (RCs), and those pentatonic scales relate seamlessly to the RC5 and RC2.
Connecting the Pentatonic Scales
The most straightforward approach to using the various pentatonic scales is to stick to your root tone and switch between the major, minor, and Lydian Dominant.
The changes in sound are apparent and very colorful, but the chances are high that almost every composer would use them this way! So, let's do something else instead that leads to fresh musical results using a bit of Interval Theory-magic! That's the moment when we want to use them as you've never done before!
Let's have a closer look at all the horizontal formulas so that we find out what notes to alter to make a chromatic transition from one scale to the next. Don't think in an overall tonality as this will get in your way and make things more complicated in the application. Let's focus on the numbers only as it's just a matter of getting from one horizontal formula to the next by moving some notes around chromatically (no matter what the actual pitches are later).
I'm giving you a full chart of all the steps needed to transition between the various pentatonic scales freely below, but let's look at some concrete examples first so that you can follow the process. Actually, you can apply this concept to any set of scales freely; it's not limited to pentatonic.
Here's one possible way how we can move from the C major pentatonic into the minor one by aligning the numbers from the horizontal formulas.
Now, let's explore how we can get from the major to the Lydian dominant pentatonic.
And finally, here's the transition from the minor to the Lydian dominant pentatonic.
Of course, all the steps and transitions are reversible, meaning there are six transformations in total when we look at three scales as starting material. Again, don't let this confuse you as you can (and should) use the cheat sheet below to put this all into action!
Here's the abstract chart that helps you maneuver through the three pentatonic scales.
Please note that the five "x"s indicate the slots for the scale steps of the respective scale that you start from. You either raise it by one half-step (+1), lower it (-1), or keep it as is.
Furthermore, we always start all the scales on the root tone, meaning that's the first "x" on each scale. If the root tones gets altered, you know that you've changed the tonal center.
It's an elegant and most efficient way to modulate from one tonal center to a new one. If you want, you can even use some cadences in conjunction with the various pentatonic scales. This will help you create even more musical material to work with later!
Here is an example so you know how to use this cheat sheet:
Let's pretend that we've used the Lydian dominant pentatonic scale on an E root tone. Hence, we get the notes E, F#, G#, A#, and D. Now, we want to move into the minor pentatonic. From the chart, we know that we have to lower the first and the last scale step. So, let's bring down the E to an Eb and the D to a Db. We don't touch the remaining notes, only the spelling changes with the root tone. So, we end up with the notes: Eb, Gb, Ab, Bb, and Db. Everything is connected in a chromatic way!
It's time to bring everything together and into the form of something that we can listen to using the concepts explained so far! In the video below, we show the result of some applied interval theory magic in an orchestral context.
Have fun listening to the piece "M.O.M. Is Calling".
Feel free to use (or abuse) any of the concepts in your own works and make them fit into your workflow and palette!
Now it's your turn to create some great and fresh music using a bit of the pentatonic spice!
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The world of Pentatonic is a vast but beautiful subject, and if you haven't dug into it, be sure to do this today by starting to explore the techniques from this article!
As usual, here's a quick summary of the main takeaways that you should remember.
The various pentatonic scales connect to a lot of different musical places, such as the Church Modes, triads and cadences, or the Circle of Fifths, and even the Harmonic series. The world of Pentatonic is a crucial puzzle piece on your way to reaching musical freedom.
Spend some time with the individual pentatonic scales to understand their emotions and how you want to use them in your style of composition, then combine them using the Cheat Sheet from above! Rock on!
Co-founder and instructor at Music Interval Theory Academy