November 2018

Techniques: Pentatonic Scale

We give you a few distinctive techniques and methods you can use to study the art of the pentatonic scale.

In January, we highlighted a variety of popular songs that male use of five-note scales. This time around, we are further exploring the uses of this prominent tool.

National Standards: 1-3, 5-7, 9, 11


Have the class read Techniques: Pentatonic Scales (page 22 of the student edition). The article uses five examples (major and minor, sequences, riffs, melodies and horns, solos) to illustrate the variety of uses for this type of scale in different styles of music.

Key points in the article:

    • All styles of traditional music make use of pentatonic scales, even in eastern countries
    • Typical major and minor scales have seven notes; a pentatonic scale has five (“penta” meaning five). Major and minor pentatonic scales have a unique relationship.
    • Sequences are an excellent method of practice that can be used for many exercises, but are especially helpful for understanding pentatonic scales and how the notes relate to one another
    • Riffs are a common tool used in all styles of music — they are repeated rhythmic phrases, often used to lead up to an improvised solo
    • Pentatonic scales make for an interesting and engaging melody. Because they are so similar, the transition from major to minor pentatonic scales can be seamless — a useful idea when crafting a unique and constantly changing tune
    • Aside from warm-up exercises, riffs, and core melodies, pentatonic scales are excellent tools for improvisation and solos.


Try playing through some of the techniques with the class, noting the tips described in each example. Lessons might include:

  • Playing Example 1 for students, then having them practice it on their instruments.
  • Playing Example 2 for students on a piano to illustrate the repetition of the sequences, and noting the relationship between each note (which skip a step and which are consecutive)
  • Playing Examples 3, 4 and 5 for students then having them practice them on their instruments.


Ask students who can define where the word “pentatonic” comes from and what it means. Have a discussion about the difference between a 7-note and a 5-note scale, how taking two notes out has an effect on sound.

If you have piano players in your class, they may know that the black keys on a piano make up a pentatonic scale. Ask if anyone knows a song that can be played with only the black keys? Amazing Grace anyone?

Play this video of “Amazing Grace” on piano using only black keys


Now play the following video of a random melody played only on black keys

If available, ask students to come up with their own melodies on a piano using only black keys. Have volunteers share with the class. 


Ask students if being limited to the black keys made it easier or more difficult to come up with a melody. Ask which type of scale they prefer in melodies: major, minor or pentatonic?