Why don’t you pick up your instrument and play some pentatonic scales? See how they fit with your songwriting, and note how easy it becomes to find lots of riffs or melodies when you know that the notes could be fall within the pentatonic; particularly in rock, blues, R and B, and old Negro spirituals!
Unlike the major scale in music, i.e. do-re-me, etc, etc., a pentatonic scale has only five notes. It originated from Africa, the Far East, among native American Indians and in the music of black slaves in the early history of the United States. It is the same as the major scale, except you leave out the “half tones”. Half tones are the 2 places on the piano where white keys are not separated by a black key, ie. B to C and E to F.
The 2 scales used most in popular music are the major and pentatonic. Some songs based on pentatonic tones include:
Susie Q (C.C.R)
Purple Haze (Jimi Hendrix)
Man in the Box (Alice in Chains)
Play that Funky Music (Wild Cherry)
Low Rider (War)
Born Under a Bad Sign (Cream)
These are just a tiny example of the hundreds of pop, rock and blues songs with a predominant use of the pentatonic scale. You can hear it in artists and bands such as the Stones, Nelly Fertado, Sublime, Black Sabbath, Patti Labelle, Dire Straits and Duane Eddy.
Mind you, these examples don’t use only pentatonic scale. Some use it in a certain lick, intro, phrase, or just in the bass guitar part. But the music that uses the pentatonic scale almost exclusively is Black or Negro spiritual.
One school of thought, articulated by Whitley Phipps of the US Dream Academy, a charitable organization for children of inmates, is explained on his You-Tube video above.
Black spirituals such as “Swing Low”, “Amazing Grace”, and almost all spirituals can be played using only the black keys on a piano (and only the pentatonic scale tones):
Start at the three black keys next to each other, followed by the next two:
Play F # — G# A# — C# — D#. This particular group of notes is a major pentatonic scale in the key of: F# (also called pentatonic Gb — because F# and G flat are the same note).
You don’t even need to know the names of the keys to hear a Negro spiritual and pick it out on the 5 black keys. Then you can move up and down the keyboard and play the same notes in higher and lower octaves. If using the 5 black keys only, it will be in the key of Gb/F# pentatonic.
Mr. Phipps describes the pentatonic scale, just those five little notes, as the source of “the power and pathos of the Negro spiritual”, called the slave scale back when white folks had slaves in the US.
Mr. Phipps contends that the scale we know of as “Do-Re-Me…” was not in the musical vernacular of slaves from Africa, thus the music built on just 5 notes.
This explains why black or Negro spiritual songs have those haunting melodies evoking so much feeling.
Just as with the major scale, the pentatonic scale can be played in many different keys: It is the intervals between notes that make it distinct regardless what key you play it in.
Many chord choices fit with pentatonic scales, such as major 7th, 6th, minor 6th, minor 7th and 7th chords.
Keep learning more about scales and theory, from country to jazz, at our music making blog.