The Major Pentatonic Scale

A pentatonic scale has five notes, which in the C Major pentatonic scale are as follows:

C – D – E – G- A

Take a look at the notes and intervals, and think about what’s missing. The C Major pentatonic scale is the C Major Scale with the fourth (F) and seventh (B) scale tones removed.  By removing these tones, we also remove the intervals of a minor 2nd (semitone) and diminished 5th (tritone). The dissonance of these intervals is what creates much of the tension in traditional Western music.

By removing the most dissonant intervals, pentatonic scales can evoke a more relaxed, even dreamy feeling. They are commonly used in Asian music, and are often referred to as having “no wrong notes.”  This also makes them popular for improvising in rock, blues, or jazz.  Pentatonic scales were used in ancient Greece, in folk music from all over the world, and are a near universal part of our musical language, as Bobby McFerrin demonstrated at the World Science Festival last year.

Guitarists can refer back to our previous post covering the minor pentatonic scale on guitar.  Bass players can think of the major pentatonic scale as the My Girl scale.  Play the notes of the C Major pentatonic scale in sequence, add the C an octave above the starting note, and repeat.  With the right rhythm, you have just learned the opening riff to the Temptations’ classic.

Other Pentatonic Scales

From our last look at the Circle of Fifths (The Inner Circle) we know that the relative minor scale contains the same notes as a major scale, they just start in different places. The same holds true for pentatonic scales – the A minor pentatonic scale contains the same notes as C Major pentatonic:

A – C – D – E – G

Pentatonic scales are sometimes referred to as “black keys” scales, since they can be formed by playing a sequence of five adjacent black keys starting anywhere on the piano.  The table below is adapted from Wikipedia, and shows all of these scales, along with notes transposed to the equivalent white keys.

Mode Name(s) Black keys White keys
1 minor pentatonic E♭-G♭-A♭-B♭-D♭-E♭ A C D E G
2 Major pentatonic G♭-A♭-B♭-D♭-E♭-G♭ C D E G A
3 Egyptian, Suspended A♭-B♭-D♭-E♭-G♭-A♭ A B D E G
4 Blues Minor, Man Gong B♭-D♭-E♭-G♭-A♭-B♭ E G A C D
5 Blues Major, Ritusen D♭-E♭-G♭-A♭-B♭-D♭ D E G A B