How to the Play the Pentatonic Scale on Piano
The pentatonic scale is a foundational building block of music. This article helps you understand and play the pentatonic scale on piano.
Pentatonic scale may sound bizarre and overwhelming if you’re a beginner in music theory.
You might say, “I have no idea what either of those words means!”
You’re not alone. To help you, we’ll explain the concept of pitches and scales before diving into the pentatonic.
- Getting to know pitch.
- So, what is a scale?
- What is a pentatonic scale, and why should I learn it?
- How to play the pentatonic scales.
- Don’t let your frustration get pent up.
Getting to know pitch.
Music is a language of sound. In the spoken word, we have letters. In music, we have pitch.
Pitch is the measurement of the frequency of the instrument’s sound wave. It can be high, low, or mid-range. Western music has twelve specific pitch frequencies—the materials for making all the music we hear—we call notes.
We label these twelve notes with letters A to G and the symbols sharp (# = slightly higher than) and flat (b = slightly lower than). These notes repeat themselves across the keyboard.
You can have a high A, a low A, or an A somewhere in the middle.
They are all the same note, at different pitches. You can hear this easily by playing note A in three different piano sections.
So, what is a scale?
A scale is a series of notes with a pattern of intervals (spaces) between them.
The most common scale in Western music is the major scale. It has seven notes and a formula that comprises whole and half-step intervals.
Music is all about relativity. Intervals are the fabric of music because they’re the distance between two notes, defining their relationship. It is their relationship that creates the mood or personality of the sound.
Because the formula of a scale is an intervallic pattern, you can start the scale on any note and use the formula to create a scale with the same character.
For example, you can use the major scale formula beginning on D, G, or C, which always sounds like a major scale.
What is a pentatonic scale, and why should I learn it?
Unless you live in a cave or perhaps a pentaphobic society, you probably know that penta means five. And so, the pentatonic scale is a series of five notes.
You might be asking – why do we need a scale like this? Isn’t the seven-note major scale enough? Can’t we just play a major scale without two notes? These are good questions, and they do have an answer.
The pentatonic scales have a unique sound because they exclude two notes from the standard major and minor scales. Removing these two notes removes the scale’s spicy, dissonant, or harsh-sounding intervals.
We will elaborate on this in a minute, but for now, the point we are making is that the pentatonic scales consist of five notes that all blend effortlessly and harmoniously. This gives you enormous freedom to improvise or compose using these scales – no matter what note you play, it’ll sound sweet.
Another reason to learn the pentatonic scales is that they’re common in all the music we know and love.
For example, Jazz and Blues music was born of the minor pentatonic scale, with the small addition of the blue note – hence the name of the genre.
The major pentatonic scale is the sound you hear in traditional Chinese music and is the scale that creates musical patterns for many traditional Asian and African string instruments.
How to play the pentatonic scales.
The pentatonic scale is what we call a “derivative scale” – derived from something else.
Let’s discover the magic of the major and minor pentatonic scales by analyzing their parent scales: the major and the natural minor scales.
Major scale → Major pentatonic scale
As mentioned earlier, a major scale comprises seven notes. But really, the DNA of a major scale is the intervallic pattern of whole steps and half steps. If you memorize this pattern, you can play a major scale in every key.
Let’s take the C major scale as an example. After applying this formula, starting with note C, we number each of the seven notes in ascending order.
You may notice a few intervallic relations in this scale, which are harsh and dissonant. Notably, the half-step between 3—4, the half-step between 7—1, and the tritone (otherwise known as the devil’s interval) between 4—7.
Miraculously, the major pentatonic scale manages to eradicate all of these tense harmonic relationships by removing the 4th and 7th degrees of the scale:
This makes the intervallic pattern of a major pentatonic scale look like this:
Natural minor scale → Minor pentatonic scale
Let’s now unpack the minor pentatonic scale by going through the same process – starting from the natural minor scale.
The natural minor scale uses the following intervallic formula of whole-steps and half-steps:
In the key of C, the natural minor scale looks like this:
The minor scale is indeed supposed to carry more tension and suspense than the major scale. But still, certain intervals make this scale challenging to work with in improvisation and composition.
For example, the half step between 2—b3, the half step between 5—b6, and the tritone between 2—b6.
Now check out the magic of the minor pentatonic, making all the nasty intervals disappear.
This makes for free-flowing playing, with notes that complement one another in any combination or order. Want to learn more?
Major pentatonic scales
Check out this clear-as-crystal table with major pentatonic scales in five different keys.
Minor pentatonic scales
And now for the minor pentatonic scales, in the same five keys. Fun fact, these notes are almost exclusively white keys on the piano!
Don’t let your frustration get pent up.
We know that learning new theoretical concepts can sometimes feel cold and dry. We want to create living and breathing music that comes from the heart.
But the whole idea of learning music theory—like the pentatonic scale—is that it can give you the freedom and the language to express yourself fully.
So, if you’re doing your head in trying to learn pentatonic scales and all the others – take a break. Then come back to your desk, count to five, and keep going.
For a digital companion to help you along the way, check out Simply Piano.