Major Pentatonic Scales

In this lesson we will discuss the construction of the major pentatonic scale and examine its link to the major scale. Scales provide foundation for melody and harmony. The major pentatonic scale is no exception, despite its limited number of scale tones.

The major pentatonic scale consists of five notes contained within an octave. In contrast to other scales such as the major scale, the major pentatonic scale has large intervals due to the absence of any semitones (half-steps). The major pentatonic scale is often thought of as a gapped or an incomplete major scale. Pentatonic scales are commonly used in many cultures and found all over the world.

Pentatonic Scale Construction

The word 'Penta' is derived from the Greek word meaning five. The pentatonic scale contains five scale tones, hence the name 'penta'-'tonic'.

The major pentatonic scale is built by using the notes of the major scale with the exception of the 4th and 7th degrees. In the following example, we compare the construction of the C major pentatonic scale to the C major scale.

Scale Degree I II III IV V VI VII VII
C Major C D E F G A B C
Half-steps 2 2 1 2 2 2 1
C Major
Pentatonic
C D E G A C
Half-steps 2 2 3 2 3

Notice that in the example above, there are no semitones in the major pentatonic scale. In contrast to other common scales, these intervals are quite large, with the smallest being a tone (whole-step). The removal of any trace of semitones makes the major pentatonic scale sound consonant in any order or combination.

Improvisation

An interestingly observation is that the piano keyboard naturally provides all the notes of the a pentatonic scale; F# or Gb pentatonic scale. The diagram below shows the notes of the Gb (F#) major pentatonic, contained within the black notes of the piano.

F# Major Pentatonic Scale

C Major Scale Showing Steps and Degrees

The above example provides an introduction to the world of improvisation. The pentatonic scale is consonant in any order or combination with all notes considered safe to land on. In other words, there are no wrong notes.

Tendency Tones

The fourth and seventh degrees of the major scale are considered tendency tones. What is meant by this term is that these two scale degrees have a tendency to pull the melody or harmony towards a resolution. This resolution is an interval of a semitone.

Using C major for example, the intervals between degrees 3 and 4, E-F, and degrees 7 and 8, B-C, are semitones.

In a given melody, the pull of the leading note to tonic is undoubtedly strong. To a lesser extent, the pull of the fourth degree may go unnoticed. However, in harmony, the tendency for resolution of the exposed fourth degree is as strong as the pull of the leading note.

Removing these two notes from the makeup of the C major scale leaves the remaining notes, C, D, E, G, and A, that constitute the C major pentatonic scale.

Scale Degree I II III IV V VI VII VIII
C Major Scale C D E F G A B C
C Major
Pentatonic
C D E G A C
4th
omitted
7th
omitted

Made In China

Well not really, but examples of the use of pentatonic scales span many genres and cultures from Celtic Folk Music to African American Spiritual Music. Some countries have adopted the major pentatonic sound as their basic scale. Consequently, traditional instruments, such as those originating from China, are strung and tuned for the major pentatonic scale.

In modern western music, the most common use has been in the popular music of the 20th century, including folk, blues, jazz and pop.

The major pentatonic scale is taken from the root (starting) note of the major scale and named accordingly. As there are 15 major scales, there are 15 major pentatonic scales to study in the exercise:

Scale Name Notes
C Major Pentatonic C D E G A C
G Major Pentatonic G A B D E G
D Major Pentatonic D E F# A B D
A Major Pentatonic A B C# E F# A
E Major Pentatonic E F# G# B C# E
B Major Pentatonic B C# D# F# G# B
F# Major Pentatonic F# G# A# C# D# F#
C# Major Pentatonic C# D# E# G# A# C#
F Major Pentatonic F G A C D F
Bb Major Pentatonic Bb C D F G Bb
Eb Major Pentatonic Eb F G Bb C Eb
Ab Major Pentatonic Ab Bb C Eb F Ab
Db Major Pentatonic Db Eb F Ab Bb Db
Gb Major Pentatonic Gb Ab Bb Db Eb Gb
Cb Major Pentatonic Cb Db Eb Gb Ab Cb

Revision of Enharmonic Tones

Enharmonic Tones are notes of the same pitch with different letter names. As you construct your Major Pentatonic Scales, you may come across various sharps (#) and flats (b). To help you with any issues regarding enharmonic tones, remember the following points:

  1. The notes of the major pentatonic scale will follow the order of the notes from its parent major scale
  2. Scales do not mix flats and sharps