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Play Pentatonic Scales on the Piano
Pentatonic Scales for the Jazz-Rock keyboardist that covers the basics of building pentatonic scales, finding a comprehensive practice routine, and getting to grips with jazz vocabulary.
What Does Pentatonic Mean?
What is a pentatonic scale? To find out, let's break the word "pentatonic" up into its constituent parts.
Penta is a Greek word meaning 5, and tonic means tones. Therefore, a pentatonic scale is a scale made up of five different tones - or notes. It's not that unusual a word, really, because the more common major and minor scales with 7 notes are also known as heptatonic (or made up of 7 notes) scales.
So a pentatonic scale is like a major or minor scale but with two of the notes omitted. However, there's a lot more to pentatonic scales than that.
If It's Good Enough for Don McLean
Ever heard the song Vincent by Don McLean, also called Starry, Starry Night? It's a tribute to the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, best known for his highly stylized paintings represented through works such as Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers.
If you listen to the first five notes of the opening melody - sung to the words starry, starry night - you'll hear an example of a pentatonic scale. You can play it yourself on your piano or keyboard too, by simply following this quick and easy guide:
- Place your finger on the lowest of any group of two black notes.
- Play ALL FIVE of the black notes moving up the keyboard, one after the other
And that's all there is to it. You can see why the pentatonic scale is so popular among composers of all types of music.
Another famous example is the French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy's piece for piano entitled "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair" (or La fille aux cheveux de lin). Listen especially to the first four notes of the tune each time it appears, which uses the notes D flat, B flat, G flat, and E flat -- four of the black notes.
Pentatonic Scales using White Notes
The basic pentatonic scale uses a specific sequence of notes and intervals to create its unique sound, which is as follows:
- Tonic (or starting note) - up a whole tone - up a whole tone - up a minor third - up a whole tone - up to the next tonic note
To form your own pentatonic scale using this formula and only the white notes, follow these easy steps:
- Start on the note C
- Move up a whole tone (to D)
- Move up another whole tone (to E)
- Move up a minor third (to G)
- Move up a whole tone (to A)
- Move up a minor third (to the next C)
Here's an example of a pentatonic scale using the white notes and starting on the note C:
Pentatonic Piano Scales Domonstrated
Piano Player's Poll
Which scales do you find easiest to play on the piano?
Pentatonic Scales using Black Notes
It’s easy to understand the pentatonic scale in relation to the black notes on the keyboard, because there are only 5 of them. They also follow the exact spacing requirements for the pentatonic scale as mentioned above, with all the whole tones and minor thirds in just the right place.
Remember if you write a pentatonic melody that you can harmonize it any way you choose. As long as the melody follows the pentatonic pattern, the harmony can do whatever you want it to. So don't feel limited to the number of notes you can use in chords, arpeggios, and the like.
Here's an example of the pentatonic scale using only the black notes on the keyboard, and starting with the note F#:
Types of Pentatonic Scale
White Notes used
Black Notes used
C D E G A C
A C D E G A
G A C D E G
E G A C D E
D E G A C D
Pentatonic Scale Playing Options
Do you find the 5-note structure of a pentatonic scale restrictive? It doesn't have to be. Remember that you can use any note as the tonic or starting point, so a white-note pentatonic scale need not start on C.
For a twist, try starting your scale on A. That will give it a minor flavor due to the minor third between the first and second notes. Or you might create a pentatonic scale beginning on another of the white notes, such as in the following examples:
- Pentatonic scale with G as the starting note: G, A, B, D, E, (G)
And, of course, you don't need to use only white notes if you don't want to. Here's an example that combines black and white notes:
- Pentatonic scale with D as the starting note: D, E, F#, A, B, (D)
As you can see, even with this most basic of pentatonic scale layouts, the possibilities are endless. Every time you place the starting note somewhere new you get a different set of variables to play around with, helping to fire up your creativity, including:
- A new key range (C to C, G to G, D to D etc.)
- New harmonic possibilities (in the left hand)
Here's an example of a simple melody created using the white-note pentatonic scale starting on C:
And here's an example of a minor-sounding melody created using the same notes, but focusing on A as the tonic or staring note:
You can see, print, and hear both of these short tunes by going to this Score Exchange page. The file is in MP3 format so you can simply press play and hear what they both sound like.
You'll notice that the first melody is quite basic, using simple chords in the left hand and an uncomplicated rhythmic structure. The second melody takes things one step further, using a jazzy rhythm and rich chords that positively begs to be extended.
The table above lays out the 5 possible versions of the pentatonic scale. One thing you'll notice is that they really are simply different versions of each other. Put simply, they're all the same scale, but using a different note as the tonic or starting note. Another way to think about it might be as follows:
- Pentatonic means 5 tones - so there are 5 possible "tonics" to choose from.
Remember also that you can form any of these pentatonic scales starting on any note on your piano keyboard. Have fun playing around with the variations and - who knows? - you might even come up with your own brand new scale!
Before you move on, though, why not test yourself in the short quiz below? Thanks for reading!