Have you ever wondered why a song is so catchy? You can’t get it out of your head, and it just seems to work well. Chances are that it was written in the pentatonic scale.
The pentatonic scale is a musical scale that gets its name from the greek word pénte, which means five. That’s because it consists of five notes per octave – the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th degrees.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at 11 examples of songs that use the pentatonic scale in various genres. Let’s dive in!
Related: If you need a recap, check out our guide to the pentatonic scale here.
1. “Amazing Grace” By John Newton
One of the most iconic melodies of all time, “Amazing Grace,” is a popular hymn that is the perfect example of a song that uses the pentatonic scale.
While it’s not known who wrote the melody, it is based on an old folk tune called New Britain, it uses the major pentatonic scale exclusively.
The use of the pentatonic scale gives “Amazing Grace” a simple and elegant sound. The limited number of notes in its melody allows the song to focus on the emotion and message of the lyrics rather than being distracted by complex melodies or harmonies.
2. “Auld Lang Syne” By Robert Burns
Next on our list is “Auld Lang Syne,” a Scottish folk song that is often sung to bring in the New Year. It’s probably due to its sentimental and nostalgic lyrics that reflect on the past and look forward to the future.
With words written by legendary poet Robert Burns, Its melody uses the major form of the pentatonic scale, and when sung in its customary key, F major, it only uses the notes F, G, A, C, and D.
Interestingly, Joseph Haydn and Beethoven have their own arrangements for this song, which is probably one of the reasons why the melody has become so popular.
In the video above, Dougie MacLean lends a rather meditative feel to the piece. However, it is worth listening to Beethoven’s version as the song can be rendered as a brisk dance too.
3. “Jeux d’eau” By Maurice Ravel
Switching gears from the folk tunes above, next we have a piece called “Jeux d’eau” which translates to “The play of water,” “Fountains,” or “Water Games,” written in 1901 by Maurice Ravel, who was 26 years old at the time.
It is said that French composers at the turn of the 20th century were looking for new musical ideas. Accordingly, the use of the pentatonic scale at the L’Esposition Universelle in Paris in 1889 had a lasting effect on Ravel and his contemporary Claude Debussy.
“Jeux d’eau” makes great use of the pentatonic scale to paint, in impressionistic language, the “sound of water.” Do you hear the splashes, ripples, and currents? Do you like the oriental feel the pentatonic scales give this piece?
The pentatonic scale, which lacks a leading tone, coupled with the whole-tone scale, gives it a free and ethereal feel that doesn’t seem to have a tonal center. For an analysis of the work, check out this video.
4. “Sonnymoon for Two” By Sonny Rollins
From classical impressionist music to swinging jazz, the pentatonic scale is very flexible. One of the roots of jazz music is blues, which in turn makes generous use of the pentatonic scale.
“Sonnymoon for Two” is a jazz standard by Sonny Rollins. In the “head” (the theme stated upfront in the first 12-bar cycle), the soloists plays a melody that basically runs down the minor pentatonic scale.
As the piece goes on, the musicians enjoy the freedom to improvise and thus go beyond the confines of the pentatonic scale. However, as the piece draws to a close, the pentatonic theme is restated.
5. “Billie Jean” By Michael Jackson
Next, we look to the “King Of Pop” himself with one of Michael Jackson’s most famous songs and a chart-topper back in the day, “Billie Jean” makes use of the minor pentatonic scale in its memorable bass line.
The song is in the key of F#m, and the bass part starts off with the notes: F#, B, C#, E. Later, when the bass moves upwards to support the Bm harmony, the notes are: B, F#, A, E.
Both these bass “riffs” derive from the F# minor pentatonic scale and is a great example of how the scale doesn’t just create memorable melodies but also bass riffs too!
6. “Sir Duke” By Stevie Wonder
One of my favorite tracks of all time, “Sir Duke,” was written by Stevie Wonder as a tribute to Duke Ellington, a jazz legend whose arrangements and vision shaped umpteen jazz musicians through the 20th century.
The song has many memorable moments, and one of particular interest is the riff that appears after the first three 32-bar cycles and then later on in the piece.
The riff is based on the G# minor pentatonic scale, even though a few chromatic notes take the pentatonic scale into the realm of the blues.
Guitarists will love to play this riff, as the pentatonic scale favors easy left-hand finger patterns, while some alternate picking in the right-hand makes for a great challenge.
7. “Better Together” By Jack Johnson
Switching genres yet again, the next song on our list is “Better Together,” a hugely popular Jack Johnson track and one that proves that it doesn’t need more than five notes to create a modern crowd favorite.
The verse and chorus are based on the major pentatonic scale. Perhaps the way the melody moves, by steps up and down the scale, explains why it is so easy to recall.
Another Jack Johnson song that uses the pentatonic scale is Upside Down. This Jack Johnson song was featured in the 2006 animated movie Curious George. The opening guitar riff and the chorus use the notes of the E major pentatonic scale.
8. “Those Were The Days” By Charles Strouse and Lee Adams
Next, we look to the melody used for the opening theme of the classic American sitcom “All in the Family,” which makes generous use of the major pentatonic scale. In fact, the first couple of sections of “Those were the days” use just the five notes of the pentatonic.
If the song has a structure of A A B A B A, it’s only in section “B” that you hear the 7th of the scale. By stepping out of the pentatonic scale, Charles Strouse and Lee Adams bring variety and contrast to section “B.”
9. “Variations on a Korean Folk Song” By John Barnes Chance
A standard in band repertoire, “Variations on a Korean Folk Song” By John Barnes Chance, is a piece based on, you guessed it, a Korean folk song, “Arirang,” which is about 600 years old.
John Chance’s composition comprises a theme and five variations. The theme is built using the major pentatonic scale. It is said that Chance heard Arirang when on a bus in Korea.
The pentatonic scale is present in much of “world music,” for instance, Chinese music, Balinese Gamelan, African Folk songs, and even some Indian ragas. It is interesting to probe into the reason why so many diverse cultures around the world use the pentatonic scale or some flavor of it.
10. “My Girl” By The Temptations
“My Girl” is a song that helped The Temptations rise to the top of the charts, and today is recognized as a significant contribution to America’s musical heritage.
The song features a melody that is largely pentatonic. In fact, it deviates only at one point in the chorus, when the 4th degree of the scale is introduced. The pentatonic scale seems to free the melody of any element of tension, giving it an easygoing feel.
Behind the melody is an arpeggiated line played by a guitar that consists of the C major pentatonic scale followed by the F major pentatonic scale. That being said, the notes of the F major pentatonic scale are found in the C major scale.
So, instead of thinking in terms of a change in key, you can think of the riffs as a shift from tonic to subdominant harmony.
11. “Hey Brother” By Avicii
And finally, here’s a 21st-century piece that makes generous use of the minor pentatonic scale. The song “Hey Brother” By Avicii has a melody entirely drawn from it.
The keyboard riff that intersperses the singing introduces the 7th scale degree of the G natural minor scale. However, given the brief manner in which the 7th scale degree is used, you would be justified in thinking in terms of melodic decoration rather than a deviation from the pentatonic scale.
That about wraps up our look at some songs that use the pentatonic scale. We hope it’s helped you get a better idea of its sound.
One thing to take away from this article is just how versatile the pentatonic scale is. It’s found in so many different genres and styles, from African spirituals and Chinese folk music to Jazz standards, Irish jigs, and modern-day hits, the pentatonic scales own a place in every genre and culture.
In fact, the major and minor pentatonic scales appear to transcend all musical boundaries.
But, this list is far from a comprehensive list of songs written in the pentatonic scale. What other songs do you love that use it? Let us know, and we’ll add them in!