Music Theory

What is a Pentatonic Scale? Piano Tutorial

By Hannah Kendall
Learn how to play the pentatonic scale.

What is a pentatonic scale in music? Learn how to play the pentatonic scale on the piano.

Imagine a scale where every note sounds pleasant, where there is no dissonance and no risk of playing anything that sounds wrong. Imagine you’re improvising and every note played fits perfectly with all the others. Introducing the pentatonic scale: a five-note scale with all of these amazing qualities!

Pentatonic scales are versatile and are used in pop, jazz, folk, rock, and improvisation. Knowing how to play a pentatonic scale will expand your compositional abilities and your understanding of why certain notes sound better together. In this article, you will learn about how to create and play different types of pentatonic scales. 

What is the pentatonic scale and why is it used?

The Greek word “penta” means five. Pentatonic scales contain five different notes and are derived from major/minor scales. A pentatonic scale forms consonant intervals that can be used to blend major and minor keys during improvisation. It can also help combine chord tones with non-chord tones. Pentatonic scales work so well because they sound familiar and are widely recognized. Even though every culture in the world interprets music differently, pentatonic scales have been found in almost every style of folk music. From sub-Saharan Africa to Asia to Europe, pentatonic scales are universal and widely used. 

Pentatonic scales are versatile because most people recognize them, even if they might not know it. This video illustrates the power of the pentatonic scale and how deeply recognizable it is. Without telling the audience how to sing the pentatonic scale, Bobby McFerrin guides the audience through the notes and the audience is able to intuitively pick up the relationships between them. 

Are pentatonic scales easy to learn?

Yes! Pentatonic scales are derived from major and minor scales. If you know these, you can easily find the pentatonic scale. To remember the major pentatonic scale, commit this pattern to memory: 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6. This shows which notes to play and which ones to avoid. In C major, the pentatonic scale is C, D, E, G, A, and C. The notes F and B are avoided. 

C pentatonic scale showing shaded keys C, D, E, G, A, and C.

Notice how there are no half steps within the major pentatonic scale. It’s made up of only whole steps and minor thirds. There are, however, other pentatonic scales that do contain half steps. We won’t get into these scales today, but they’re known as hemitonic pentatonic scales.

Regardless of the key, the 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 pattern does not change for major pentatonic scales. Note that, with this pattern, scale degrees 4 and 7 are skipped. Played together, these two create a tritone, a harsh, dissonant interval. By leaving out notes 4 and 7, pentatonic scales only focus on the “safe” or agreeable notes. 

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What are the 5 notes in the pentatonic scale?

The notes in the pentatonic scale change depending on the key. No matter the key, major pentatonic scales will follow the 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 pattern. Let’s use it to find the G major pentatonic scale. In this key, the pentatonic scale is G, A, B, D, E, and G. 

Keyboard illustrating G pentatonic scale. Shows shaded keys G, A, B, D, E, and G

To find the minor pentatonic scale, however, we cannot use the 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 pattern. If we used this pattern in a minor scale, we’d have the dissonance of the tritone! Minor pentatonic scales use the same notes as the relative major pentatonic scales. The only difference is the starting place. Minor scales use a 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7 pattern. G major’s relative minor is E minor. We use the same notes as G major but start on E. The notes are E, G, A, B, D, and E. 

Keyboard showing E minor pentatonic scales. Shaded keys are E, G, A, B, D, and E.

What are examples of the pentatonic scale?

The hymn “Amazing Grace” is an old folk tune that uses notes only in the major pentatonic scale. As a result, the melody is simple, which brings more attention to the lyrics and the emotions of the song without the melody or harmony being distracting. 

“My Girl” by the Temptations makes use of the F major and C major pentatonic scales. The pentatonic scales in this song provide an easygoing feeling, free of worry. 

A good example of the minor pentatonic scale comes from the King of Pop himself. In Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” the bass kicks in with the notes of the F# minor pentatonic scale: F#, B, C#, and E, or notes 1, 4, 5, and 7 in the F# minor scale.

Now to review: What is a pentatonic scale?

What is a minor pentatonic scale?

A minor pentatonic scale is based on the notes of a minor scale. Use the pattern 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7 to find the intervals of the minor pentatonic scale. Here’s a tip: if you know how to find major pentatonic scales, you already know the notes of the minor pentatonic scale. They share the same notes—the only difference is the starting place. For example, the A minor pentatonic scale uses the same notes as C major: C, D, E, G, A, C. However the A minor pentascale starts on A and is played A, C, D, E, G, and A. 

What is a major pentatonic scale?

A major pentatonic scale is based on the notes of a major scale. Use the pattern 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 to find the intervals of the major pentatonic scale. Playing all black keys is another way to hear the sound of the major pentatonic scale. You would be playing in the key of G flat (or F sharp) major.

With patience and practice, playing the notes of a pentatonic scale will become easier. Enjoy making music with pentatonic scales!

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