Thursday, March 16, 2017

Discover The Pentatonic Scale


You probably have the basic gist of what a scale is.  We sing some notes and they go up, up, up. 

But when I start talking about pentatonic and diatonic and chromatic scales in class, people start wondering, "what the heck are those and why do we care?"


In this post, everyone (especially Sound Beginnings parents) can get excited about the pentatonic scale and improve their melody skills.  


A Scale With Every Note


You may hear mention of the chromatic scale.  (Chromatic means colorful.) This is a good one to start with because it means we play 12 semitone intervals, so 13 notes.  Play every single piano key, black and white, and that's the chromatic scale.  Voila!



C  C# D  D# E  F  F# G  G# A  A# B  C

On a piano, the 12 steps are evenly spaced, meaning the wavelength of the note changes by a consistent amount between each step.  You've played an octave when you play a note that has a wavelength twice the length from the note you began on, a 2:1 ratio. 

The chromatic scale is the fundamental set of notes from which scales can be built. It's not really musical, because it doesn't have a tonic, a home note.  


We love finding "Do is Home" in Let's Play Music, and being able to identify the home, or key note, in music we listen to. Music naturally pulls back to Do, so let's look at some scales that have a tonic note and work for writing melodies.

Scales Around the World


Thousands of years ago, peoples in different parts of the world discovered frequency ratios and pitch relationships.  By selecting 5-8 tones with relationships they liked, scales were created and used to make melodies.  Different cultures settled on varying scales, giving the music characteristic sounds.  


Note: Any of the following scales could be played in any key by creating the same pattern of skipping tones (with whole steps and half steps) to create the scale. 


The Diatonic Scale is our beloved Major Scale Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do! Read more about it here. Western music since the Middle Ages on has been based on this scale. We spend most of our time in class learning about this scale. The steps go: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half. Remember that trick and you can build a major scale on any note.



C  C# D  D# E  F  F# G  G# A  A# B  C

Here are the notes/intervals that make an Indian whole-tone scale, just one of the many scales that could be used in Indian music. Notice how evenly spaced the tones are...all whole steps, all the time. Here is some piano music using a whole tone scale. Sounds dreamy!



C  C# D  D# E  F  F# G  G# A  A# B  C

And a Hungarian Gypsy scale. Listen to it here...sounds like you would expect.



C  C# D  D# E  F  F# G  G# A  A# B  C

And an Arabic scale.... well, sort of. Arabic tone scales actually define wavelength intervals smaller than what we use (or have names for or piano keys for). When you're tuning your guitar and your note is a little too flat to be C but a little too sharp to be B, you're playing one of those Arabic notes that we usually pass over. Want to see how a guitar can make the microtones by adding extra frets? Pretty cool, and if you like getting sciencey with microtones, check out some computerized 53-microtone music.



C  C# D  D# E  F  F# G  G# A  A# B  C


The Blues Scale comes in super handy during our 3rd year of Let's Play Music when we get to play some piano blues! Write a new melody for your blues using these notes. Get some help learning Blues Scales here.



C  C# D  D# E  F  F# G  G# A  A# B  C


Pentatonic Scale Everywhere


The pentatonic scale, created by the  mathematician, Pythagoras, is rather special.   He started with a home/tonic note and added a perfect 5th. The 5th is an interval between two notes whose wavelength have a ratio 3:2. 


Take the notes you have, repeat the process again and get 2 more notes, or 5 all together: the pentatonic scale. These notes have nice clean ratio-relationships, so they harmonize nicely together.


By the way, repeat the process to get 2 more notes and create the diatonic scale. If you want to get a little nerdy, let Donald Duck take you on a tour of Pythagorean society in this classic educational cartoon about math.


The result is a five-note scale with the intervals most commonly used for music worldwideYou can find this scale in every musical culture.  There are loads of country, folk, jazz, and rock songs that contain just these 5 notes in the melody, but they are especially prevalent in children's songs.  

C  C# D  D# E  F  F# G  G# A  A# B  C
Do       Re      Mi         Sol     La          Do

Why so popular for children??  Because hearing and singing this small set of easily defined musical intervals is age-appropriate and prerequisite for more advanced melodies.  Pentatonic hearing and singing is foundational for children.  You'll notice in class we start by hearing, echoing, and singing the minor 3rd (sol-mi). 

Once children are hearing and reproducing it, Echo Ed sings patterns that contain la.  Then we add in do  and re as ear-training progresses to more complex tunes.  (Very last we add echoes with fa and ti...notes from the major scale)


Bobby McFerrin demonstrates how his audience has already internalized the pentatonic scale. Wherever he goes in the world, the audience 'gets' the pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scale is part of every musical culture!



  
Sing the Pentatonic

Here's a collection of songs built on the pentatonic scale. Many more of your favorite children's tunes fit into this category, too. 


Notice that the pentatonic scale avoids half step intervals. It seems easier to train your vocal chords to jump to the intervals without having to consider the half steps that occur in the major scale.

Pentatonic songs are great to teach to your child or any beginning singer. You'll recognize many from our Sound Beginnings classes (click links to hear these songs). There are thousands of pentatonic songs you would recognize, but here are a few:

Have fun singing with the pentatonic scale, and if you're interested, check out our blog series on Singing in Tune.
- Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music teacher

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