The Pentatonic Scale
Is the earliest known musical scale, predating the seven-note major or minor scale by thousands of years. Many ancient peoples developed and used the pentatonic scale independently of one another. For this reason, the pentatonic scale is and always has been a scale for “the people,” as opposed to for the pomp and ceremony of the high state. The most distinctive feature of this scale is that, as its name suggests, it has only five notes as opposed to the seven notes of the major/minor scales.
The pentatonic scale is sometimes known as the gapped scale because when a pentatonic scale is built upon note C, it uses only five white keys, missing out the notes F and B. Because of the gaps in the scale between notes E and G, and between A and C, the sharp minor seconds between E/F and B/C are missing. This means that all five notes played simultaneously will still sound very harmonious. There is no harshness or dissonance in the sound at all. For this reason, the pentatonic scale is popular in children’s music and for the purposes of teaching children music. They can play any of the notes in any combination, and it still sounds good.
Musicians often use the pentatonic scale to enrich basic triads and give them a more complex, colorful sound. These chords are called added note chords. Of the five notes of the pentatonic scale, three of them make up a major triad—C, E, and G. The other two notes of the scale—A and D—offer good opportunities for added note harmony, with the former giving rise to the added sixth chord and the latter to the added ninth chord. When combined, together they produce a chord of the added sixth/ninth. Pentatonic influences also inspire the use of suspended chords. A suspended chord is when the third is swapped for a note that lies on either side of it.
One of the important features of the pentatonic scale is that, like the seven modes of diatonic music, the tonic note can be moved around. This gives rise to five different pentatonic modes. Because of the asymmetrical pattern of intervals in the scale—tone, tone, minor third, tone, minor third—five modes are created, each with its own particular character.
Formula for working out pentatonic modes (in tones)
In Chinese music the five modes were linked to the five elements that, in Taoist philosophy, were considered to rule the universe. Associated with each element were characteristic emotions, moods, colors, and so on
A chromatic scale is a nondiatonic scale consisting entirely of half-step intervals. Since each tone of the scale is equidistant from the next, it has no tonic. Sometimes, however, a melody based on a regular diatonic scale (major or minor) is laced with many accidentals, and although all 12 tones of the chromatic scale may appear, the tonal characteristics of the diatonic scale are maintained.
The tonic, subdominant, and dominant degrees of the scale are identical in both a major scale and in its parallel minor scale. In fact, if the music being performed did not use the mediant, submediant, or leading tone, it would not be possible for a listener to determine whether the piece was in a major or a minor modality. For this reason the tonic, subdominant, and dominant pitches have often been identified as being tonal scale degrees; those pitches that clearly establish in the listener’s ear what is the tonic or tonal center of the music. In contrast, the mediant, submediant, and leading tone are scale degrees that differ in the major modality from the minor modality and are, therefore, the pitches that enable the listener to identify the modality of the music. For this reason these pitches have been identified as modal scale degrees. The supertonic has some characteristics of both and for that reason may be heard as either a tonal scale degree or a modal scale degree.