What Are Pentatonic Scales? A Music Theory Guide

By Jade Bultitude
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Pentatonic scales have been a feature in music for many years and once you have read this blog post it will be very clear why. Pentatonic scales are believed to be about 50,000 years old! They can be heard in various forms throughout history and in almost every culture in the world, including within Gregorian chants, within Native American music, African and south asian music as well as in modern jazz. It truly is an incredible scale within music theory and regardless of era or genre you will find you hear and see it a lot!

You might have thought that major and minor scales came about first but major scales and minor scales only came into real use in the 1600’s and as you can see above, the pentatonic scale was being used from the Middle Ages!

What is the pentatonic scale?

The pentatonic scale uses just five notes. The word ‘pent’ is borrowed from the Ancient Greek language (pente) meaning five! So put simply, the pentatonic scale is a five note scale.

There are two types of pentatonic scale: the major pentatonic scale and the minor pentatonic scale. Both of these are very much related to major and minor scales.

The major pentatonic scale takes five notes from the major scale.

The minor pentatonic scale takes five notes from the minor scale.

Major Pentatonic Scales

The first pentatonic scale we will look at is the major pentatonic scale. The major pentatonic scale is directly related to the major scale in that it uses exactly the same notes minus two!

Every major scale can be labelled with degrees (i.e. the number of the note). Let’s take a look at G major below.

G pentatonic scale in treble clef

By labelling the G major scale in this way it is then easier for us to show what degrees will be removed to make the major pentatonic.

The G major pentatonic scale uses the degrees, 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6.

As you can see, we omit the 4th and the 7th degree of the major scale to create the G major pentatonic scale.

G pentatonic scale in treble clef

You can also think about your major pentatonic scale in terms of the intervals that it uses:

Tonic, Major second, Major third, Perfect fifth, Major sixth

g pentatonic scale intervals

Minor Pentatonic Scales

The other pentatonic scale you should have an understanding of is the minor pentatonic scale. In very much the same way as the major pentatonic, the minor pentatonic takes five notes from the minor scale!

Let’s see if we can create the e minor pentatonic scale. Why? Because e minor is the relative minor to G major! (If this is a surprise to you then make sure to check out our information on the circle of fifths and relative scales!)

Let’s write out the E natural minor scale and label it’s degrees.

The minor pentatonic scale uses the degrees 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7!

As you can see, we omit the 2nd and 6th degrees when writing a minor pentatonic scale. We have now created the relative minor pentatonic scale to the major pentatonic scale written above!

You can also think about the minor pentatonic scale in terms of the intervals that it uses:

Tonic, Minor third, Perfect fourth, Perfect fifth and Minor seventh.

What does a pentatonic scale sound like?

If you have a piano to hand then simply play just the black keys and you will hear what a pentatonic scale sounds like. This is a major Pentatonic scale starting on D flat! A beautiful pleasant sound! Let’s explore why it is so pleasant on the ears.

Let’s look at the C major scale as it has no sharps or flats.

In a major scale, the 4th and the 7th degrees form a tritone. These intervals are what give a major scale the feeling of suspense and can add tension! To find out more about the tritone interval make sure to click here.

If we compare this C major scale to the C major pentatonic scale, you will see that the tritone interval is now gone! We are simply left with the intervals of a major 2nd, major 3rd, perfect 5th and major 6th. These are all consonant intervals and very pleasant on the ear!

The C major pentatonic scales will use the notes C, D, E, G, A.

Both the major and minor pentatonic scales include no semitones (a half step) which is also what creates the tension in a major scale.

How to play Pentatonic Scale on Piano

Below are the examples of C Pentatonic scales that you can play on the piano.

Major Pentatonic Scale

Tonic – Major 2nd – Major 3rd – Perfect 5th – Major 6th

Minor Pentatonic Scale

Tonic – Minor 3rd – Perfect 4th – Perfect 5th – Minor 7th

Play Pentatonic Scales on Guitar: The CAGED System

Major Pentatonic Scales

The CAGED system of box shapes gives guitarist a simple(ish) way to play major and minor pentatonic scales. The green circles are the Root note of the scale and the patterns actually fit together to cover the neck of the guitar.

To give an example, if you play Shape E then the first note on the E string would be the root. By starting on fret 3, you would be playing G Major Pentatonic.

Want to play a specific major pentatonic scale, check out the below pages:

Minor Pentatonic Scales

Major and Minor scales are related. For example, E Minor is the relative minor of G Major. This means that share the same key signature (they both have a F# in them). This means we can use the same shapes for the minor pentatonic as for the major, however the root notes will fall differently.

Shape E for the Minor pentatonic starts on the root note. If we begun this shape on fret 5, we would then be playing A Minor pentatonic.

The shapes are shown below with the root notes labelled in red.

Want to play a specific major pentatonic scale, check out the below pages:

How can I use the pentatonic scale in my playing?

The pentatonic scale is an extremely useful scale and is used in many simple songs, folk melodies and also widely used in improvisation, particularly within blues music.

Take a look at the music for the classic but simple song Amazing Grace – this only uses the notes D, E, G, A and B. This is a D major pentatonic scale!

You can use a major and minor pentatonic scale in place of any major and minor scales. Note this will be in place of the natural minor scale- if you need to understand your different minor scales then make sure to click here!

If you are using a pentatonic scale for improvising or composition, it is useful to know that you can play a major pentatonic scale over major chords and a minor pentatonic scale over minor chords. This is a beautiful way of introducing pentatonic melodies to your playing and compositions!

You can even use dominant seventh chords as well (to find out more about dominant chords you can check this out here!). However, when doing this make sure to watch out when using the minor pentatonic scale as this scale contains a minor third which will clash with the major third within the dominant chord.

Remember a dominant chord includes the intervals of a major third and a minor seventh!

You can also play pentatonic scales over modes, which is very popular in guitar music theory. The major modes are the Ionian, Lydian and mixolydian modes. All of these modes contain the scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6.

The pentatonic scale has so many uses both in improvisation as well as composing. It used for some of the most famous songs and solos in the world! How will you use it?

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Jade is a flute player and music educator with a passion for educating the next generation of musicians. She is a Masters Graduate from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Jade has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.

1 thought on “What Are Pentatonic Scales? A Music Theory Guide”

  1. Your teaching method is very interesting and thorough. I’m trying to apply these concepts to my lead, and bass, guitars as well as piano (which I play in C). I read guitar tab sometimes, but mainly play these instruments by ear. I would like to keep in touch with your website. =Ken (I do not have a website of my own)

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