The Pentatonic Scale: A Complete Guide

The pentatonic scale is one of the most widely recognised and used scales probably of all time. You’ll commonly hear it used in all sorts of music genres in anything from classical, pop, jazz and even heavy metal.

In this post, we’ll take a look at how you make a pentatonic scale and some of the reasons why it’s been so popular throughout history.

What is a pentatonic scale?

A pentatonic scale is a type of musical scale that uses only five notes in an octave.

The name pentatonic comes from the greek work ‘pente’ which means five and is where we get words like pentagon, a five sided shape and pentameter, a form of poetry that uses five strong beats.

The pentatonic scale is used widely in a lot of different music genres. It’s one of the easiest scales to play and often will sound good with notes played in any order as there are no semitone (half step) intervals in it which can cause dissonance. For this reason it’s very common for improvising and guitar solos.

History of the pentatonic scale

Pentatonic scales are one of oldest known scales in the world. Archaeologists have dug up ancient flutes carved out of bird bones with many of them tuned to the pentatonic scale. Some are thought to be as old as 40,000 – 60,000 years old!

Aurignacian flute made from an animal bone, Geissenkl√∂sterle (Swabia). (CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Types of pentatonic scale

There are a number of different types of pentatonic scales but the two most common ones are:

  • The major pentatonic scale
  • The minor pentatonic scale

Let’s take a look at what notes make up these two scales.

Major pentatonic scale

The major pentatonic scale is made up of five notes, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th degrees of the major scale. In the key of C that would be: C, D, E, G and A.

C major pentatonic scale

As you can see above, it’s very similar to C major scale but doesn’t contain the 4th or 7th degrees. These are the two notes that are a semitone (half step) away from one of the other notes in the scale.

Check out this video of Bobby McFerrin demonstrating that without any prior knowledge, given only the first two notes of the pentatonic scale, the audience will know which note to sing next. It’s a natural phenomenon.

The Power Of The Pentatonic Scale – Bobby McFerrin

Minor pentatonic scale

The other type is the minor pentatonic scale which is made up of the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th degrees of the natural minor scale. In the key of A this would be A, C, D, E and G.

A minor pentatonic scale

As you can see, it’s very similar to the natural minor scale but doesn’t contain the 2nd and 6th degrees of the scale. Just like in the major pentatonic, these are the two notes that are a semitone (half step) away from one of the other notes in the scale.

To finish

If you’re just starting out in learning music then the pentatonic scale is one of the first scales you should learn about. It will open lots of doors for you to play hundreds of songs and allow you to start improvising and making your own music. If you have questions that haven’t been covered here post a comment below.

Dan Farrant

Dan Farrant

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.

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