Pentatonic scales

Scales & modesPentatonic scales are frequently used in music all over the world : Eastern, European, Mediterranean, African, Amerindian, Oceania. The word "pentatonic" comes from the Greek word "pente" meaning five and "tonic" meaning tone.  They are considered earlier than heptatonic scales. They are divided in two categories :

  • Containing semitones (hemitonic)
  • Without semitones (anhemitonic)

There are many pentatonic scales, the best known are the major pentatonic scale and the minor pentatonic scale (also known as "the relative minor pentatonic"). They do not have semitones (anhemitonic). These two scales are very important for jazz blues guitar players and improvisers.

The five modes of the major pentatonic scale

Each degree of the major pentatonic scale (which is what we are interested in) can provide a tonic for a mode. There are five modes :

  • Mode I (major pentatonic) that consists of the first, second, major third, perfect fifth and sixth.
  • Mode II aka Egyptian pentatonic scale (no third, suspended scale) : 1 - 2 - 4 - 5 - b7
  • Mode III (minor) : 1 - b3 - 4 - b6 - b7
  • Mode IV aka Ritusen scale (no third, suspended scale) : 1 - 2 - 4 - 5 - 6
  • Mode V (minor pentatonic) that contains the same five notes as the major pentatonic scale, but its tonic (first note of the scale) is three semitones below the tonic of the major pentatonic scale : 1 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b7

The relative minor

What's the relative minor pentatonic scale ?

For every major scale there is a relative minor scale and for every minor scale there is a relative major.

  • Relative minor scales begin on the sixth degrees of major scales.
  • Relative major scales begin on the third degree of minor scales.

These two rules works for all the scales and chords.

Let's take an example with the C major pentatonic (C - D - E - G - A). It has the same notes as the A minor pentatonic (A - C - D - E - G). The sixth degree of the major pentatonic scale is the tonic of the minor pentatonic scale.

Pentatonic relativity 1

Now another example with the G minor pentatonic scale (G-Bb-C-D-F). The relative major pentatonic scale start on the third degree of G minor. Thus giving the Bb pentatonic scale (Bb-C-D-F-G).

Pentatonic relativity

Rare pentatonic scales

Now that we have talked about the most played pentatonic scales, here are some other pentatonic scales rarely used, some of them have altered notes :

These following are from the major scale :

  • Dorian pentatonic scale : 1 - 2 - b3 - 5 - 6. This scale is sometimes reffered to as "Kumoï".
  • Phrygian pentatonic scale aka Dorian b2 pentatonic : 1 - b2 - - 5 - b7 
  • Lydian pentatonic scale : 1 - 2 - 3 - #4 - 6 (major pentatonic scale with a sharp eleventh instead of the perfect fifth).
  • Mixolydian pentatonic scale or dominant pentatonic scale : 1 - 2 - 3 - 5 - b7 (mixolydian mode without the sixth and the fourth).
  • Aeolian pentatonic scale : 1 - 2 - b3 - 5 - b6 (minor pentatonic with a minor sixth). There are different opinions about the construction of the aeolian pentatonic scale. Some teachers says that it contains the same notes as the minor pentatonic scale. It is also named "Hirajoshi scale".
  • Locrian pentatonic scale - 1 - b3 - 4 - b5 - b7 (Locrian mode without the flat ninth and the flat sixth).

It's possible to build pentatonic scales from the melodic minor scale :

  • Melodic minor pentatonic scale aka minor major 7 pentatonic scale : 1 - b3 - 4 - 5 - 7 (this is the melodic minor mode without the second and the sixth)
  • Major seventh sharp fifth pentatonic scale : 1 - 2 - 3 - #5 - 6
  • Seventh sharp eleventh pentatonic scale (Lydian pentatonic scale) : 1 - 2 - 3 - #4 - 6 (this pentatonic is related to the lydian dominant mode, fourth mode of the melodic minor scale)
  • Seventh flat thirteenth pentatonic scale : 1 -2 -3 -b6 -b7 (related to the mixolydian b13 mode)
  • Minor ninth flat fifth : 1 - 2 - b3 - b5 - b7 (related to the sixth mode of the harmonic minor scale)

Altered pentatonic scales

  • Dominant #11 pentatonic scale : (1-2-3-#4-b7)
  • Altered pentatonic scale aka 7b9 pentatonic scale : (1-b2-3-5-b7)

Exotic pentatonic scales

  • Egyptian scale aka suspended pentatonic  (1 - 2 - 4 - 5 - b7). This is the second mode of the major pentatonic scale.
  • Man gong scale : 1 - b3 - 4 - b6 - b7. It is a Chinese scale.
  • Pelog pentatonic scale : 1 -b2 - b3 - 5 - b6 . It is an Indian scale derived from the Pelog scale.
  • Ritusen scale : 1 - 2 - 4 - 5 - 6. 

Japanese scales

  • Kumoïjoshi (mode I): 1 - b2 - 4 - 5 - b6 or 1 - 2 - b3 - 5 - 6. 
  • Chinese scale (mode II) : 1 -3 - #4 -5 - 7.
  • Hirajoshi scale (mode III) : 1 - 2 - b3 - 5 - b6. 
  • Iwato scale (mode IV): 1 - b2 - 4 - b5 - b7. 
  • Japanese (mode V) - 1 - 3 - 4 - 6 - 7.

Asian pentatonique scales

  • In Sen Scale (Mode I) : 1 - b2 - 4 - 5 - b7. 
  • Asian scale (Mode II) : 1 - 3 - b5 - 6 - 7
  • Asian scale (Mode III) : 1 - 2 - 4 - 5 - b6
  • Kokinjoshi scale (Mode IV) :  1 - b3 - 4 - b5 - b7
  • Kumoï scale (Mode I) : 1 - b2 - 4 - b5 - b
  • Kumoï scale (Mode II) : 1 - 3 - 4 - 6 - 7
  • Kumoï scale (Mode III) : 1 - b2 - 4 - 5 - b
  • Kumoï scale (Mode IV) : 1 - 3 - #4 - 5 - 7 
  • Kumoï scale (Mode V) : 1 - 2 - b3 - 5 - 6 

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