Five Notes Will Change Your Life: Pentatonic Scales | Easy Ear Training
Starting Solfa

In this series so far, we’re covered the basics of finding do and applying solfege syllables in a given key, as well as singing and hearing intervals. Now we will look at the pentatonic scale, and see how this particular set of intervals can help us recognize even more patterns in simple melodies.

What is a Pentatonic Scale?

The pentatonic scale contains the five most commonly used pitches in simple songs and folk melodies. A pentatonic scale can be formed in any major or minor key, but for the purposes of this article, we will focus on major pentatonic scales.

A pentatonic scale consists of a series of intervals starting from do:

  • Do-Re
  • Do-Mi
  • Do-So
  • Do-La
  • Do-Do

If we sing a pentatonic scale, it will sound like this:

C Pentatonic

The scale has a very distinct sound, and as stated above, it contains the most commonly used pitches in many popular songs. There are a number of songs that use the pentatonic scale exclusively. For example, it is possible to sing or play Amazing Grace with just these five notes.

For piano enthusiasts: You may have realized you can play Amazing Grace by only using the black keys on the piano. The black keys of a keyboard naturally outline a pentatonic scale! 

Another common tune using these five notes is Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

With a quick Google search, you can find a vast number of tunes using the pentatonic scale. Check out this list of songs at Beth’s Music Notes.

If you need more persuasion that this scale has a special significance, just watch this fun video demonstration of the pentatonic scale by Bobby McFerrin:

Singing the Pentatonic Scale

The syllables for the pentatonic scale are Do-Re-Mi-So-La-Do.

Sing along with the clip below:

Now we will sing up AND down the scale, singing Do-Re-Mi-So-La-Do, Do-La-So-Mi-Re-Do.

You’ll notice there are no half-steps in the pentatonic scale. This contributes to its distinct sound, as opposed to a major or minor scale.

Now try singing the scale without the audio clip. Can you produce the correct pitches without singing along with someone else? It’s harder than it sounds.

A good method for practice is to record yourself and play it back. A tool like Voice Memo on iPhone or Audacity is helpful for this, see our Audacity article for step-by-step instructions. Sometimes your brain will trick you into thinking you’ve sung something correctly, but recordings never lie. Compare the recording with the audio clip above, and see if you can match it yourself.

Hearing Pentatonic Scales

One advantage of pentatonic scales is that there are only five different pitches (or six if you’re counting the octave above the tonic). When using different scale recognition tools, you will find you can identify the scale just on the number of pitches, since other types of scales have more. However, it is worth using a tool like this one from Teoria.com, because if you can pick out the pentatonic scales from major scales, you will have a great advantage further down the line. To use the exercise, be sure you tick the box next to “Pentatonic Scales”, along with “Major minor”. If you already know major and minor scales, you can try to identify these as well. Challenge yourself to hear the difference between pentatonic and other types of scales.

You can also try playing the scale on your instrument, to get used to the sound of these five notes. Remember, because you know the solfege, you can play a pentatonic scale in any key. Just use Do-Re-Mi-So-La-Do!

For example, a pentatonic scale starting on D would be:

D Pentatonic

Here’s the scale in G:

G Pentatonic

And F:

F Pentatonic

Good thing we learned solfege! Now it’s easy to play the scale in any key.

So Why Don’t I Just Play It On My Instrument?

Playing the pentatonic scale on your instrument will certainly benefit your playing skills, but remember, we’re working on our brains and our ears. It’s important to be able to sing a pentatonic scale rather than simply produce it on your instrument, because by singing it you know that you are hearing the pitch properly in your mind without relying on anything else.  Producing the scale with the corresponding solfege helps connect the sounds of each scale degree with a syllable, making it more likely that you will instantly recognize the notes of a scale because your brain will process them based on their solfege identity.

Now that we’ve learned about intervals and the pentatonic scale, it’s time to move on to chords. Chords are the basis of harmony, and for anyone interested in improving their ability to hear harmony or improvise harmonies with melodies, hearing chords is vitally important. Stay tuned for the next part in the series!

What other tunes do you know that only use the pentatonic scale? Did your previous interval practice help you grasp the sound of the pentatonic scale most easily? Let us know in the comments below!

Series Information
This is part 4 of 6 in the Starting Solfa series.

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