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Thread: Where does the Pentatonic scale come from?

  1. #1
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    Where does the Pentatonic scale come from?

    I have a question about the origin of the pentatonic scale.

    I realize that the scale is a variation of the major scale with the 4 and 7 notes removed.
    For example: C Maj = c d e f g a b c and
    C Maj Pentatonic is c d e g a b, thus the half steps between e-f and b-c have been removed.

    What is the theory behind this??? What makes this scale so dominate in Rock?? And finally, what does leaving out the 4 and 7 note imply about the chord progressions to be used with the pentatonic scale?????

  2. #2
    Central Scrutinizer
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    Well for one it's universal over any major minor triad.

    C Pen Major tosses out the potenial conflicting notes.
    If you toss out the 4 and 7 of a Major Scale it leaves you with the same 5 notes regaurless of Mode.

    C Lydian C D E F# G A B C
    C Mixo C D E F G A Bb C

    Pem Minor you toss out the 2 and 6

    Again the 2 notes that are altered for a Dorian Phyrgian Scale.

    Secondly it sounds good
    When we play Pen Minor over a Major chord we actually get a minor 3rd over a chord with a Major 3rd.

    I don't think anyone sat down and said, "Hey lets toss these notes out." It just happened cause it sounded good or it worked.
    Saying we tossed out the 4 or 7 just kinna explains what we actually did or why it sounded good.

    Besides try playing over a basic blues like Tush with a Gmajor scale. That's F#s Nasty I suppose one could pull it off but it wouldn't exactly sound like Billy Gibbons anymore.
    "All other things being equal, the simplest solution is usually the correct one." William of Occam

  3. #3
    Resident Curmudgeon szulc's Avatar
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    When you toss the 4th from a major scale you are able to use the resultant scale over two keys, the original root key and the P5 as root. This is because the #4 is the altered tone in the P5 key. When you remove the 7th tone you can play in two keys, the root key and the P4 key, because the P4 key has the b7.
    By removing each of these notes the key center becomes more ambiguous since the 'guide' tones to tell you what key you are in are missing. If you toss both the 4th and the 7th you can now be in any one of three keys, Root, P4 and P5. This is a classic example of cycle 4 used to reduce a scale to make it useful over several key centers.
    "Listen to the Spaces Between the sounds."
    Szulc's Site

  4. #4
    Ibreathe Music Advisor EricV's Avatar
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    Exactly.

    You could ask that question about ANY scale. I mean, Pythagoras ( sp ? ) divided the octave into 12 equal notes and also kinda came up with something similar to our major scale...
    I think the greeks came up with modal scales. In the western world, the major scale and modes are just the "industry standard"... they were defined throughout the centuries, and we are used to them.
    Check out different cultures... in indian music theory ( not american indian ), the octave is divided into 22 steps, in indonesia itīs 5-7 steps, Steve Vai did an experiment with 16 steps per octave...
    Itīs all some kind of conditioning... a cultural thing.
    Eric

  5. #5
    The Next big thing the1andonly's Avatar
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    actually, about the curtual thing and conditioning, that's true to an extent, but if you ask me (and a lot of music theorists) the 12 note system is the 'perfect' system. notes have overtones, and the first over tone with the strongest consonance is the fifth. you if you find the overtone of an overtone of an overtone, etc, you get 12 notes before it repeats, which is where we get our 12-note system. I'm pretty sure it's the most widely used system in the world.

  6. #6
    Mad Scientist forgottenking2's Avatar
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    The pentatonic scale came from primitive forms of music, it used to be considered as an "imperfect or incomplete system" its actual origin it's still a source of discussion (since you can find it in Native American Music, Ancient Chinese music and many other primitive cultures)... So from a historical point of view the Major Scale (and its modes) came from the pentatonic scale (as a more perfect or complete system).

    Just a little different approach to the question I guess it won't hurt

    Why it's so dominating in Rock? I guess 'cause it works good with it... you see modern Rock came from Rock & Roll which came from blues, and the pentatonic scale was widely used in blues... and well I'm not sure about what I'm gonna say right now so if I'm mistaken here don't kill me ok? I think that blues origin dragged some of the african culture into it and that's how the pentatonic scale got in... ok, I'll shut up now.

    Regards,
    "If God had wanted us to play the piano he would've given us 88 fingers"

  7. #7
    Mad Scientist forgottenking2's Avatar
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    The Major/Minor system as we know it was defined by Bach's "The Well Tempered Clavier" (I think Chopin did something similar later), there he set up the "correct" tunning and also kissed the modes goodbye (they came back later though )
    "If God had wanted us to play the piano he would've given us 88 fingers"

  8. #8
    The Next big thing the1andonly's Avatar
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    oh yeah, something else I forgot to mention. if you stack 5 fifths on top of one another, for example: C-G-D-A-E, you get the major pentatonic scale. maybe that has something to do with where the pentatonics come from.

  9. #9
    Mad Scientist forgottenking2's Avatar
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    You know what? I think you're right! See first way of harmony known to man (besides unison) was paralell 5ths... we'd need a history book to really get this down... any Music History PHDs in the house?
    "If God had wanted us to play the piano he would've given us 88 fingers"

  10. #10
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    Another neat property of the major pentatonics

    Lower the tonic by a semitone and you get the major pentatonic down a perfect 4th. The lowered tonic becomes the 3rd of the new scale. Of course it's invertable - raise the 3rd to go the other way around the circle. The mnemonic I use is "drop the 1st to get the V, raise the 3rd to get the IV."

  11. #11
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    The pentatonic scale is "Made in China".

    Just kidding - but asian/oriental music uses these scales a lot.

  12. #12
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    the truth of it is that the pentatonic is a major scale with the tritone removed. this removes not one but two very dissonant intervals from any possible harmonic or melodic movement: the tritone and the half step. also this scale most likely came about because since it lacked the half step and the tritone, it had much weaker tendencies and therefore made for less tense music, something that would most likely be desired in more simple music styles.

  13. #13
    IbreatheMusic Author ChrisJ's Avatar
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    It was often thought that the pentatonic scales came before the major scale but the Neanderthal flute plays (at least part) of the major scale. This would prove that the major scale is the predecessor. I don't want to get into the long theory why the major scale would come about but if you write out the consonant intervals, root, 4ths and 5ths (C,F and G for example) and then write out the two overtones for each three, you get the major scale. Read the essay here and you'll see: http://www.greenwych.ca/cycl-5-2.htm

    Why the pentatonic then? Is is difficult to be musical with half and whole steps. By removing the half steps, which will give you the pentatonic scales, you are left with a scale with wider intervals, which lends itself to better melody.

  14. #14
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    The major scale was a relatively late arrival, in European music at least.
    The medieval modal system (which lasted around 1000 years from 600 AD) only used Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian. Ionian (and Aeolian) weren't added until 1549. (Ionian had been around in folk music for some time by then, but was referred to by church authorities - predictably - as vulgar or licentious.) And it took a little longer for Ionian to establish itself as the "major key".
    7-note scales certainly go back at least to ancient Greece, although their modes weren't the same as the later church ones. They fixed the perfect intervals (according to Pythagorean ratios), but the others were settled by ear. They even used quarter tones in some modes (but always 7 notes per octave, because they added tetrachords - 4-note groups - together).

    Of course, the acoustic properties of the major scale (overtones of I, IV and V, as ChrisJ points out) are physical and universal. The medieval modal system was an artificial choice, a restriction of available material for philosophical reasons: particular sounds they regarded as "pure" (according to the cultural definition of the time).

    While pentatonic scales are easy and enjoyable for untutored people to sing (for reasons mentioned), and quite flexible in application - and therefore common in folk music worldwide - it's quite likely that the more developed ancient cultures used more sophisticated ideas, even kinds of harmony (tho possibly quite different from the European kind of the last few centuries). Almost certainly it would have sounded very odd, and probably unpleasant, to our ears. (Traditional Chinese music sounds discordant to European ears - and that's contemporaneous.)

    (Sheesh, I only just noticed how old this thread was... )

  15. #15
    Registered User jimc8p's Avatar
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    Pentatonic scale is the most natural set of notes - a stack of fifths that blend freely with one another. Stack another fifth and you have a dissonant Major Seventh..stack another and you have a dissonant Augmented Fourth (the regular seven note scales have two half-step tensions and a tritone)... so I imagine that the major pentatonic would have been the easiest scale form to stumble upon pre-music.

    The reason it sounds so good is because of its consonance. You cannot go wrong harmonically with a pentatonic scale. Its simple, large steps are pleasing and predictable. This is perhaps why it works so well in a dissonant bluesy setting with clashing thirds.

    One thing I've always wondered - if you take any major scale, the 5 excluded notes from the chromatic scale make up a minor pentatonic from the Minor Third or a major pentatonic from the Augmented Fourth...most visually obvious as the distinction between white and black keys on a piano. Is this coincidence or the product of some obvious pattern? It seems like it must be obvious but I really cant think how this pattern works! ..any ideas?

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