Illustration: Moe Suliman
The pentatonic scale is a five-note musical scale found across various cultures and genres.
While our perhaps better-known seven-note major and minor scales mainly originated in Western cultures, the pentatonic scale is said to have been developed by ancient civilizations across the globe that were yet to come into contact with one another—a testament to how central the scale is to our visceral experience of tonal music.
In this article, we’ll introduce the major and minor pentatonic scales to those who might be unfamiliar with them, and take a look at how artists spanning a wide array of genres have used pentatonic scales to create some timeless melodies.
Let’s dive in!
What is the pentatonic scale?
A central characteristic of the pentatonic scale is that it’s anhemitonic. This sounds complicated, but it means it’s actually a simplified version of the scales that we’re most familiar with. Hemitonic scales such as our standard major scale contain notes that are a semitone, or half step, apart from one another. For example, in the C major scale, the leading tone, B, is a half step below C, and F is also a half step above E. Anhemitonic scales do away with these semitonal intervals—all pitches in the pentatonic scale are either a whole step or minor third apart from one another.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the scales themselves. The A minor and C major pentatonic scales are transcribed below in sheet notation as well as MIDI for less sheet music-minded people.
The A minor pentatonic scale (sheet notation)
The A minor pentatonic scale (MIDI)
How the A minor pentatonic scale sounds
The C major pentatonic scale (sheet notation)
The C major pentatonic scale (MIDI)
How the C major pentatonic scale sounds
Songs that use the pentatonic scale
When you first began writing music, you may have approached composing a melody by playing around with all seven notes in a major or minor scale. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, restraining ourselves to the five pentatonic pitches can create melodies that are memorable and accessible across genres and cultures.
In fact, many of the most iconic tunes we know rely on the pentatonic scale. Let’s take a look at a few of these melodies and why their use of the pentatonic scale is so effective.
The pentatonic scale in EDM: “Wake Me Up” by Avicii
“Wake Me Up” is 2013’s smash hit that you’ve definitely heard more than once—the song topped the Spotify Global Chart, broke records on Billboard, and is still the most Shazam’ed song of all time. The drop’s melody is an irresistibly catchy tune that can be hummed on command worldwide, and as you may have guessed, Avicii crafted the melody using solely notes from the pentatonic scale.
The melody masters the art of combining repetition with variation, which is key to writing a memorable melody. Looking at the transcription makes it immediately clear that there’s a strong call-and-response scheme to the melody’s rhythmic structure; the second measure reinforces the broad rhythmic ideas presented by the previous bar, while also introducing additional interest. The heightening in pitch in the response creates a blissful sense of elevation that’s perfect for a summer anthem. These techniques, combined with the inherently familiar note selection from the pentatonic scale, set Avicii up with the ultimate formula for a catchy melody.
Throughout the course of his career, Avicii wrote many other unforgettable tunes that, if not consisting solely of, heavily relied on pitches from the pentatonic scale—the main melodies in “Levels” and “Hey Brother” are just a few examples. Simplicity makes Avicii’s songs universal and timeless, and his work is sure to be heard and celebrated for years to come.
The pentatonic scale in rock: “Livin’ On A Prayer” by Bon Jovi
The beauty of the pentatonic scale lies in its versatility—one moment it’s heard in a bouncy EDM drop, and in the next it’s used in a chugging guitar riff. Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer” is an unquestionably immortal track, topping major polls including VH1’s The Greatest Songs of the 80s and C4’s Sing-Along Classics. The song is a staple of Guitar Hero jams and late-night karaoke sessions, and the talkbox guitar riff is a foundational building block of the piece.
The riff is made up of just three unique notes from the E minor pentatonic scale: E, D, and B. Although it’s from an entirely different genre and decade from “Wake Me Up,” the riff in “Livin’ On A Prayer” revolves around a shared principle: getting the most mileage out of the least musical material possible. The rhythm is just straight eighth notes, but a groove is implied and felt from the higher notes placed between the palm-muted open Es. Even when the guitar isn’t playing the riff, it’s reinforced by the bass guitar throughout the verses. Its unresting rhythm also well complements the verses’ lyrics that narrate the struggles of the working class.
The minimalism of this riff is anything but lazy writing—rather, every note is placed with great intention, and the pentatonic scale helps give this simple riff focus and form. Another classic song worth exploring by Bon Jovi is “You Give Love A Bad Name,” which has more than a few different guitar riffs that all rely on the pentatonic scale.
The pentatonic scale in R&B: “Hold On, We’re Going Home” by Drake (feat. Majid Jordan)
Taking another major turn in genre, let’s examine Drake’s vocal melody in “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” Although we’ve only looked at instrumental melodies up to this point, the pentatonic scale is also a common ingredient found in vocal earworms.
No matter how you feel about Drake, old or new, it’s undeniable that he’s written countless catchy vocal lines across his entire career. “Hold On, We’re Going Home” is a particularly unique track within his expansive discography, incorporating dreamy R&B and synth-pop vibes—below, we take a look at his opening vocal melody.
Although the transcribed excerpt only represents a fraction of the song, the vast majority of the vocal melodies in the track rely on the pentatonic pitches. The song balances a small handful of pitches with syncopated rhythms to create an appealing sense of musicality, while enabling the average listener to effortlessly sing along in their car.
In this way, the pentatonic scale can be a perfect toolkit for creating pop melodies—it removes semitones and odd intervallic leaps that can cause the non-musician fan some trouble.
Pentatonic scales are the musical embodiment of the mantra, “less is more.” By restricting ourselves to just five pitches, we may be closing some doors in terms of complexity, but we also open others that lead us towards memorability and elegance. There are variations on the scale that can provide us with additional colors, but that’s a conversation we’ll revisit another day.
Hopefully this blog post illuminates what the pentatonic scale is and how it’s most effectively used—with this knowledge at hand, you have all the tools you need to go forth and create your own timeless pentatonic melodies.
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April 13, 2023