Pentatonic Scales: How to Use Music’s Most Versatile Scale
As a music-maker, you have unique assets at your disposal like talent, authenticity, and life experience.
Then, there are tools every artist can use to create great music like musical scales.
Pentatonic scales are the backbone of countless melodies. They’re perfect for creating the kind of hooks listeners will remember.
Pentatonic scales are a music theory concept that can be used in virtually every type of music.
They’re easy to learn and write with, but you might not know where to start if you haven’t seen them since piano or guitar lessons.
In this article you’ll learn what pentatonic scales are, how they’re built, and how to use them in your music. But first, let’s talk about what exactly pentatonic scales are.
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What are pentatonic scales?
Pentatonic scales are simple five-note scales. Developed by ancient civilizations, these scales are used in countless songs and compositions.
Pentatonic scales are split up into major and minor tonalities. These scales differ from conventional major and minor scales, which contain seven notes.
Easy to remember and perform, notes from these scales can either be sung or played with melodic instruments. Pentatonic scales are key features in blues, jazz, rock, and Asian music traditions.
However, these scales never seem to fall out of style. In modern music, you’re likely to hear pentatonic scales in everything from indie pop ballads to folk songs. Pentatonic scales are unavoidable in popular music.
In modern music, you’re likely to hear pentatonic scales in everything from indie pop ballads to folk songs
Here are just a few examples of where pentatonic scales show up in popular music:
The lead vocal of Taylor Swift’s 2018 song “Delicate” never strays out of the pentatonic scale:
The melody of “Amazing Grace” is built using only a pentatonic scale:
Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” begins with an electric guitar riff that takes notes from a pentatonic scale:
How to build pentatonic scales
Pentatonic scales are built following a pattern of tones and semitones that splits the octave into five notes. If you need a refresher on what tones and semitones are, head over to our guide to music theory guide.
Pentatonic scales are built following a pattern of tones and semitones that splits the octave into five notes.
To make things easy, I’m going to show you how to build these scales on the keyboard in the key of C major and A minor. However, they can be adapted to all melodic instruments and major and minor keys by memorizing simple note patterns.
Specifically, the note patterns you’ll need to memorize are tones and semitones. The distance between C and C# is a semitone, and the distance between C and D is a tone (two semitones). These are also commonly referred to as steps and half-steps in music theory.
Building the major pentatonic scale
The major pentatonic scale in the key of C is: C-D-E-G-A
Starting from the note of C, this scale is built with two tones that move from to D and then to E. Then, from the E note, you’ll move a tone and semitone up to G, followed by one last tone that ends on A.
T-T-T+TS-T = C-D-E-G-A
Using this same tone and semitone pattern, we can build pentatonic major scales in every other key. For example, in F major the pattern would be:
Building the minor pentatonic scale
The minor pentatonic scale in A minor is: A-C-D-E-G
From A, move up one tone and one semitone to C. Then, move up a tone to D and another tone to E. On E, move a tone and semitone up to G and you’ll be on the last note of the scale.
Using the same tone and semitone pattern, let’s build the same pentatonic scale in D minor:
How to use pentatonic scales in your music
Though we used a keyboard example to build these scales, these same note patterns can be applied to vocal melodies and other melodic instruments.
And just like other scales and modes, notes from these scales can be played in any order. Individual notes can be repeated as many times as you like, and not all notes in the scales need to be played.
When you feel stuck on a specific idea in your music, trying out notes from these scales is a great way to move forward.
There are countless ways you can apply major and minor pentatonic scales to your music. From synth riffs to vocal melodies, they’re easy to perform and are incredibly catchy. When you feel stuck on a specific idea in your music, trying out notes from these scales is a great way to move forward.
One of the best ways to experiment with pentatonic scales is to try out notes you play over looped chord progressions. Using your DAW or playing with a band are easy ways to do this.
Over time, you’ll gravitate towards specific melodies. Have a recording device out and ready to keep track of your best ideas.
Essential musical scales
The beautiful thing about pentatonic scales is their simplicity.
Five notes gives you access to countless ideas and helps you find direction for your melodies. With your DAW giving you endless instrumental and production choices, pentatonic scales help ground your music.
Patrick McGuire is a musician, writer, and educator. He creates music under the name Straight White Teeth and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.
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