The Power of Pentatonics

August 19, 2008

Pentatonic scales are everywhere! They can be found in folk music from all around the world including: China, Japan, Greece, Poland, Indonesia, Ethiopia, and Scotland. American spirituals such as “Amazing Grace” and “Old Man River” utilize pentatonic scales exclusively and many rock guitar players have built their entire careers upon the five notes of the minor pentatonic scale alone. Pentatonic scales can be found throughout the music of Impressionist composers such as Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy as well as in the music of modern jazz giants like John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea.

The Pentatonic Scale
Technically, a pentatonic scale is any scale with five notes per octave. In practice however, there are only a handful of useful pentatonic scales. Today we will explore the two most common forms of the pentatonic scale: the major pentatonic and its relative minor pentatonic. In contrast to the familiar heptatonic scales, which tend to lead the improviser towards more linear improvisations, pentatonic scales can help musicians achieve a more structurally focused intervallic approach to their lines.

The major pentatonic and its relative minor pentatonic are displayed in Example 1a-b. Because both of these scales are made up of the same five notes, they can be used interchangeably. Some musicians prefer to think of the scale as a major pentatonic, while others tend to think of the scale in its minor form. Personally, I’d rather think of the scale as a major pentatonic; so from now on, the term “pentatonic” will refer only to the major form of the pentatonic scale. If you prefer to think of these scales as minor, you may convert to minor simply by starting the scale on the last note of the major pentatonic. (see Example 1b)

Pentatonic Patterns
Patterns can assist students with assimilating new scales and sounds into their repertoire. In Examples 2a-b I have provided two examples of pentatonic patterns. Pentatonic patterns can be categorized as either scalar or intervallic. In general, scalar patterns tend to use adjacent notes, whereas intervallic patterns tend to skip around the scale. To simplify the explanations of these patterns I will refer to steps and skips. A step will occur when the next note is an adjacent note, and a skip will occur when we ‘skip’ over a note in the scale to play the next available note. Thus, we could describe the scalar pattern in Example 2a as: step, step, step, skip. To play the same pattern in reverse, we simply invert the formula. Thus Example 2a in reverse is: step, step, step, skip. Example 2b is an intervallic pattern based upon 4ths and 2nds. The formula for this pattern would read: skip, step, skip, step. The reverse pattern for Example 2b would read: skip, step, skip, step.


These patterns are useful in a number of ways. First, it familiarizes the student with the scale and forces them to internalize the notes involved. Second, when developing an intervallic approach, these patterns will tie together two seemingly disparate tonal centers through their structural consistency. In order to have enough material to generate interesting lines, I have my students create several intervallic and scalar patterns of their own.

Chord Scale Relationships
Most heptatonic scales such as locrian or lydian are useful for only one type of chord or another. In contrast, pentatonic scales may be used for over a dozen different chord sounds. Example 3 displays twelve different uses of the pentatonic scale. The first column shows the chord type (e.g. Major, Minor, Dominant), the second column presents the scale degree from which to build the major pentatonic, and the third column displays the resulting chord tones and tensions that each chord/scale relationship will produce. Thus, when the improviser is given the chord CMaj7, he has the option of playing a pentatonic from the root 9th or 5th of the chord.

Generally, the easiest way to apply these new chord/scale options is by practicing them over modal or static chord progressions.


Modal/Free Playing
Many improvisers complain of feeling boxed in or trapped by modal tunes and free playing over ostinatos. Pentatonics can provide a tonal framework with which to create new sounds that are not only interesting but structurally coherent as well. Example 4a displays three possible chord/scale options for the chord CMaj7. Notice how the scalar pattern from example 2a creates a structural consistency that links each new chord sound to the previous one.

Example 4b demonstrates a technique known as ‘side-stepping’. In this example the improviser defines the tonal center by clearly outlining a C major pentatonic scale in the first measure. Upon reaching the second measure, he plays the same pattern a 1/2 step above from Db, thus taking the listener ‘outside’ of the prescribed harmony. Measures 3-4 bring the listener back ‘inside’ the changes by playing the descending version of the original C major pentatonic sequence.

Example 4c combines the concept of alternative chord/scale options with side-stepping. Try playing these examples and creating a few of your own. Notice how your ear recognizes the sequence and thus accepts each transposition of the pentatonic scale as a development of the previous idea.

Running Changes
Pentatonics are not confined to only modal and free jazz improvisations. In fact, pentatonics can provide the improviser with a break from his or her ‘stock licks’ when running changes. To break away from the scalar, or arpeggiated lines of your typical ii-V-I, I have provided two different ways of approaching the progression with pentatonics. Examples 5a-b utilize a pentatonic pattern built upon 4ths and 2nds. The formula for the ascending pattern is as follows: skip, step, skip, step. The descending pattern would read: skip, step, skip, step. Although both examples utilize the same pattern, they each approach the progression differently.

Example 5a is a typical ii-V-I in the key of C. The pentatonics played over each chord are as follows: Dm7=G pentatonic, G7Alt=Ab pentatonic and CMaj7=G pentatonic. The resulting line is effective for several reasons. First, there is a pattern which our ear naturally gravitates towards. Second, each pattern begins on the root of its respective pentatonic, making it easier for our ears to recognize. Lastly, the pentatonic patterns move around in half steps. Half step resolutions are very powerful and can often warrant the use of so called ‘wrong notes’. Example 5a contains a so-called ‘wrong note’ in the second bar. Even though the 4th is an avoid note on the V7alt, our ears justify the ‘wrong note’ because of the consistency created by both the pentatonic pattern and its chromatic movement between each chord change.

Example 5b displays the same ii-V-I progression with different pentatonics superimposed over each chord. They are as follows: Dm7 = C pentatonic, G7Alt = Db pentatonic and CMaj7 = D pentatonic. We still have chromatic movement between each pentatonic pattern. However, instead of creating the sound of parallel structures by starting from the root of each pentatonic as in Example 5a, Example 5b sounds more like one continuous idea based upon an intervallic line. This result is achieved by starting the new pattern as close as possible to where the last pattern left off.

Pentatonic Practice
Hopefully, the techniques and skills outlined in this article have shed some light on the many uses of the pentatonic scale. In the next issue, we’ll take a closer look at altered pentatonics and their uses. Until then, hit the woodshed and get comfortable with the new chord scale options and intervallic structures created by the major pentatonic scale. For further listening and analysis, check out Chick Corea’s solo on the tune “500 Miles High” from Return to Forever’s Light As A Feather (Verve) or take a listen to Herbie Hancock’s free playing over the tune “A Jump Ahead” off his album Inventions Dimensions (Blue Note). Additional examples of pentatonic scales can be found in the opening of Maurice Ravel’s “Trois Poemes de Stephane Mallarme,” as well as in the piano work, Pagodes by composer Claude Debussy. Try transcribing and analyzing some of these works to expand your knowledge of pentatonics. Always remember to experiment with your own patterns and ideas as well. Oftentimes improvisers see a chord or a scale and forget that jazz is about thinking ‘outside the box’. Your own ear will always be your best guide as to what works and what doesn’t. Good Luck!

Chaim Burstein holds a M.M. in Jazz Studies from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and a B.M. from Berklee College of Music. He is currently residing in Philadelphia where he is working as an active musician and educator.

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