Basic Training: The Pentatonic Scale

December 3, 2014

By Chris McNulty

Jazz instrumentalists have been incorporating pentatonic scale use into their melodic motifs and soloing explorations and compositions since the very early days of jazz, drawing from the blues. John Coltrane used the scale extensively. As vocalists we’ve also been hearing and using these scales – perhaps not in the same manner as jazz instrumentalists.  Nevertheless, we’ve been hearing and singing them for a long time.

I’ve developed a few simple exercises which vocalists might find useful when incorporating pentatonic scales into your improvisations. Template A is your source document. Use this to assist you in understanding how these scales work over certain chord qualities. Template B includes exercises which work over a specific set of chord changes. The harmonic passage I’m using is an excerpt from the vamp ending of an original composition of mine, “New Day” (C. McNulty – melody/lyric, P. Bollenback – harmony).

The pentatonic scale is a five-note scale that is deeply rooted in the folk music of diverse and ancient cultures around the world. Its history and influence on those cultures and their music is significant. Instruments from Ethiopia to Indonesia are tuned to certain pentatonic scales. Over the centuries, the pentatonic scale has found its way into classical harmony and composition. Both major and minor pentatonic scales are embraced by jazz musicians and their use has had a profound impact on jazz improvisation, mainly because they work so well over certain harmonic passages. The blues scale is also predominantly derived from the minor pentatonic scale.

Before we start working with the exercises in Template B, let’s first look at Template A. 

  • C Major Pentatonic uses the same notes as A Minor Pentatonic (its relative minor pentatonic). This rule applies across all keys. For example: D Minor Pentatonic would use the same notes as F Major Pentatonic as so on and so forth.
  • C Major Pentatonic Scale uses the following intervallic scale structure and notes: Whole step, Whole step, Minor 3rd, Whole step, Minor 3rd:   C, D, E, G, A, C
  • A Minor Pentatonic Scale uses exactly the same notes, starting on “A”  of the scale, creating a different intervallic scale structure:  Minor 3rd, Whole step, Whole step, Minor 3rd, Whole step: A, C, D E, G A

For our purposes, all examples in Template “A” use the Minor Pentatonic scale format.

In Template “A”  – Minor Pentatonic scale use is delineated over the following chords:

  • Major 7,  Minor 7,  7 Sus4,  Dom 7th (9, 13) and Dom 7 (alt #9, #5).
  • (a) On Minor 7th Chords –  use the Minor Pentatonic scale starting from the Root, 9th or 5th of the chord
  • (b) On DOM 7th (9, 13) or 7 sus4 chords – use the Minor Pentatonic scale starting from the 5th,13th or 9th of the chord.
  • (c) On  DOM 7th (altered #9, #5) chords – use the Minor Pentatonic scale starting from the #9 or 7th of the chord.
  • (d) On Major 7th Chords – use the Minor Pentatonic scale starting from 3rd,   7th  or 13th of the chord.

Important to note:  The starting point (i.e., starting from root, 3rd, 5th, 9th,13th of chord), signifies the pentatonic scale used, starting from that note. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start your melody making on the first note of the pentatonic scale. For example in Bar 1 of Template B, I delineate the use of B Minor Pentatonic over Bmin7 (signifies scale starts from the root of the chord). However, I being my melodic motif on the “7th” because I like the sound of it.


Template “B”  (exercises A, B, C) incorporates the following chord progression:

Bmin7 /   C#min7 /   C9 (sus4)  / D9 (sus4).

To allow time to explore the scale and develop melodic motifs, each chord is given one measure (on the “New Day” chart each chord is given two beats per measure).  Exercises A & B use the chord progression above. In Exercise C, to allow for more rhythmic motion, the C#min 7 chord has been removed and replaced by an extra bar of Bmin7.

In Exercises A & B especially, I’ve kept the melodic and rhythmic motifs simple so you can grasp the methodology.  Once you learn how to hear and choose the correct starting points, create your own melodies and rhythms over these harmonic passages.

The “licks” sometimes include notes outside the scale.

Have fun!


Since her emergence on the international jazz scene in 1991, NYC-based and critically acclaimed Palmetto recording artist Chris McNulty has been hailed by musicians, peers, and critics alike as a jazz vocalist-composer with a unique vision, boundless creative energy, and a distinctive style. Her compositions have been hailed as both rich harmonically, melodically and lyrically and well worthy of the company they keep along side the great standards she continues to interpret and explore. 

Since 2002, McNulty has maintained a consistent presence on the international touring scene. In May 2013, Chris won the prestigious Australian Bell Award (the equivalent of a U.S. Grammy) for Best Vocal Jazz Album for The Song That Sings You Here. Her new album, Eternal, featuring chamber orchestra with jazz quartet and orchestrations by arranger Stephen Newcomb will be released on Palmetto Records in March 2015.

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