Are you wondering about why the pentatonic scale is such a big deal in general music classrooms?
When I was working on my undergraduate, I heard experienced teachers and professors mention over and over again the pentatonic scale.
I’m not embarrassed to admit that I didn’t totally understand what the five notes of the pentatonic scale are.
The five notes of the pentatonic scale are scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 in major keys and 1, 3, 4, 5, and 7 in minor keys. In solfege, this would be do, re, mi, sol, and la in major and la, do, re, mi, and sol in minor.
Read on for more about the pentatonic scale and why it’s so powerful in the general music classroom.
What Is A Pentatonic Scale?
The pentatonic scale is a five-tone scale based on scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 in major keys. The defining characteristic of the pentatonic scale is the absence of half steps or minor seconds.
Let’s look at the key of C major, for example. The pitches for this in a pentatonic scale would be:
- C (do)
- D (re)
- E (mi)
- G (sol)
- A (la)
When playing this scale, there is no way to create severe harmonic dissonance seen in minor seconds. There is always at least a whole step in between each note.
This creates a pleasant sound when played no matter which pitches you choose to play or end on.
In the American folk style, pentatonic songs typically end on do or la and outline general harmonic progressions. Some theorists argue these songs aren’t true pentatonic songs, but major or minor songs that happen to only use those five notes.
Other cultures (Eastern ones most notably) use what many consider true pentatonic scales. In these songs and pieces, notes aren’t given prevalence or one another, and you can end on re, mi, or sol as much as you end on do or la.
Regardless of whether or not it’s true pentatonic or not, the fact remains that the pentatonic scale uses the described pitches and avoids the minor second (also called a semitone).
In some ways, the notes of the major scale and minor scale are represented here as well, except for the pitches that cause a half step.
Take a look at this video for a quick interval breakdown.
How Do You Figure Out The Five Notes?
Figuring out the five notes of a pentatonic scale isn’t trick at all. Follow these quick steps for help.
#1 Decide Major Or Minor
First you need to decide whether the song is major or minor. If you’re making it up yourself, you get to pick.
For those looking to figure out a song already written, it can be a little trickier. In general, major pentatonic sounds “lighter” or “happy” (though this isn’t always the case).
For minor, the opposite is the case. You can expect it to sound “dark”, “sad”, or “angry.”
The next steps will be based on major, but the ideas are similar for minor. Step #6 gives a brief breakdown for finding pentatonic in minor.
#2 Find Your Starting Note
Find your starting note or root note as some call it. If you’re writing your own song, you can pick anything!
You may find it easiest, if you’re a beginner, to pick C, F, or G as your starting note.
#3 Find The First Three Notes
After finding your first note or root note, it’s easy to put the first three together. The second note should be a whole step or major second above the first, and the third note a whole step above the second.
Here are some examples with different starting notes:
Start on C – C, D, E
Start on F – F, G, A
Start on G – G, A, B
Start on D – D, E, F#
Start on Bb – Bb, C, D
#4 Skip Up
From the third note, you skip up a minor third (or 3 half steps). By skipping this interval, you avoid the potential minor seconds pentatonic doesn’t use.
For example, if your third note was E, you move up 3 half steps to G (F, F#, G).
Here are the examples from above expanded to include the skip.
Start on C – C, D, E, (skip) G
Start on F – F, G, A, (skip) C
Start on G – G, A, B, (skip) D
Start on D – D, E, F#, (skip) A
Start on Bb – Bb, C, D, (skip) F
#5 Step Up One More
From the new note, you step up a whole step again to the final note. If you wanted to go any higher, you’d skip up again and start from the beginning.
And once more, the examples with all 5 notes.
Start on C – C, D, E, (skip) G, A
Start on F – F, G, A, (skip) C, D
Start on G – G, A, B, (skip) D, E
Start on D – D, E, F#, (skip) A, B
Start on Bb – Bb, C, D, (skip) F, G
#6 Or For Minor Pentatonic Scales…
For minor keys, your process is similar, and there are actually two ways to go about it.
Figure It Out Method
Start on your note, skip up a minor third, step up, step up, and skip up a minor third once more.
For example, in the key of A minor:
- Start on A
- SKip up a minor third to C
- Up a whole step to D
- Up a whole step to E
- Skip up a minor third to G
- All notes: A, C, D, E, G
This method works best if you already know the major pentatonic of many starting keys. You may have noticed that A minor pentatonic and C major pentatonic share the same notes.
They are relative keys to each other. If you know the major, it’s relative minor uses the same notes but starts on the 5th note of the pentatonic scale.
C major pentatonic = C, D, E, G, A
A minor pentatonic = A, C, D, E, G
6 Reasons The Pentatonic Scale Is Used In Music Classrooms
It’s nice to know about the five-note scale, but why use it in your classroom?
There are countless reasons for doing so, but here are 6 of my favorite reasons.
Connected To Culture – Whether or not you consider some American music actually a true pentatonic, the music does use the musical scales in its melody. Using it helps connect and deepen understanding with our musical culture.
It’s also common in modern popular songs too!
Fits In With Melodic Sequence – If you’re someone who teaches with a sequence in mind (flow of concepts from easy to hard), the pentatonic skill is one of the first big ideas you’re working towards when it comes to melody.
This is the case with almost every major method including Kodaly, Orff, Music Learning Theory, and Conversational Solfege.
Avoids “Bad” Sounds – Playing on instruments can be tricky. We want the kids to have a good experience and sound good too.
Using pentatonic skills makes everything sound good, even mistakes! Without the half steps, it won’t ever get too painful (unless they play too loud!).
Makes Improvising Easy – Understanding and being able to sing these five notes makes improvising easier. Just noodle around on the notes, and it will work just fine!
Tons Of Good Harmony – Adding harmony with xylophones, hand bells, or even boomwhackers is simple when using a pentatonic melody.
You can build ostinati using the scale or moving open fifths, and everything will sound like a professional. This is one of the main reasons a lot of Orff folks love pentatonic scales.
Makes Students Feel Successful – All the ways the pentatonic skills make things easy and positive from above help build student confidence. This is going to make a big difference in the long run with how much students stick with music.
Good Pentatonic Resources For The Music Classroom
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, though. There are a lot of resources out there you could pull from featuring some of this popular scale.
Links are affiliate in nature. I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. However, I only pick products I’ve used and believe in.
Music For Children: Volume I: Pentatonic – From the Orff founders, this book features all songs in pentatonic with harmonic parts (often called orffestrations) to use with instruments.
American Folk Song Collection – You can sort this song collection by filters including (you guessed it) pentatonic. This one is free!
Together In Harmony – This book was gifted to me by a cousin who’s also a music teacher. The combination of sequential instruction and pentatonic fun makes this a great resource.
Not every song in this book is pentatonic, but many are.
Purposeful Pathways – This book is a method combining many of the best parts of the Orff and Kodaly approaches including an emphasis on pentatonic material.
I’ve seen one of the authors (Roger Sams) present before using these materials, and it was great.
Now you know what the five notes of the pentatonic scale are. This scale is a great tool to use in your classroom and not hard to understand with a little practice.
Do you use the pentatonic scale often? Pop on down and let us know below.