PENTATONIC SCALES

Building pentatonic scales
on any root

This lesson is the third module in the Musicarta Pentatonic Scales series of free online piano lessons. Please stay and browse the module, but if there are parts you don’t understand, click back up to the series home page for an overview of the material, and work through the lessons from there.

    Building major and minor pentatonic scales on the same root

Learning to build both major and minor pentatonic scales on the same root quickly teaches you the all-important distances (intervals) between the scale tones. When you know those, you will be able to use the pentatonic scales a lot more easily in your keyboard improvising.

Here is a column diagram showing major and minor pentatonic scales built on the same root.

pentatonic scales

The audio file plays the minor scale up and down from G, then the major likewise, then it repeats. Listen to it over and over to teach yourself to recognise the minor and major pentatonic scales. Pick out the notes ate the keyboard, if you can.

You will probably recognise the minor pentatonic scale from blues piano music.

    Intervals in the pentatonic scales

Looking at the diagram, you can see that the pentatonic scale tones in both the major and minor pentatonic scales are either one whole tone (two semitones) or a minor third (three semitones) apart.

Let’s look at some keyboards with the intervals (distances) counted off in semitones.

There are two things to remember when you count semitones.

  • You count semitones at the back of the keys so you include both black and white keys (indicated ‘always semitones’ in the first diagram.).

  • You count semitones from zero.

pentatonic scales

Note: The audio files play only the six darker-shaded notes, up and down, twice. Count the semitones off, trying to hear the two different ‘sizes’ of the steps. Sing along, and follow at the keyboard too.

pentatonic scales

pentatonic scales

pentatonic scales

    The intervals in music manuscript

Now here are the same four scales, in the same order, in music manuscript.

pentatonic scales

The audio file plays the minor scale up and down, then the major likewise, then it repeats. Use it for your ear-training tasks.

Make sure you see how both the counted-off keyboards and the music manuscript ‘tell the same story’. In the written-out pentatonic scales, a

pentatonic scales

and a

pentatonic scales

Check this out in the written music. ‘Steps’ and ‘skips’ are going to become very important in the modules that follow.

pentatonic scales

The audio file plays the minor scale up and down, then the major likewise, then it repeats. Use it for your ear-training tasks.

Here are some tasks to check your understanding so far.

  • Count off the four pentatonic scales above at the keyboard.

  • See if you can count off major and minor pentatonic scales from any random note.

    The twenty-four one-octave pentatonic scales

At some point you will want to play systematically all twenty-four major and minor pentatonic scales. The aim would be to get used to the sound of the major and minor pentatonic scales and to learn to ‘see’ the intervals (distances) within the pentatonic scales. You would do that in order to learn to use pentatonic scales at the keyboard (on any note) in your creative work.

This Musicarta module offers the twenty-four scales arranged in two ways. Open and print these two pdf files.

    About the PDF music files

Looking at the scales in the music, you see that no fingering is given. You use any convenient fingering, or use two hands, playing the bottom three notes with the left hand and the top three notes with the right hand. The purpose is to find the scale tones, not play them at speed.

The scales are written without key signatures, so the sharps and flats in the music indicate which notes use black keys. Also, every black key has a sharp or flat in front of it – you will not normally see accidentals repeated in the same bar like this.

Take note of the two ‘interval reminders’ at the top of the page. The major interval reminder is placed above the major pentatonic scales on the left hand side of the page, and the reminder for the minor pentatonic scale over the minor scales on the right.

pentatonic scales

Lastly, don’t get hypnotised by the ‘dots’! A glance at the interval reminders every now and then will help you remember the pentatonic shorthand and how many semitones there are between the scale tones, and remind you that this is a knowledge-building exercise, not a mechanical finger exercise.

    One-octave Pentatonic Scales - same root

Working with the ‘same root’ version of the scales first, play right through the twenty-four scales. Divide the job up into sections to keep your attention fresh. Try to play the scales from your knowledge of the intervals.

If you can read music at sight, pay particular attention to learning the patterns and building the scales accordingly. It’s probably better to be not such a good reader – you will use the semitone counting in the interval reminders (plus, of course, your ear) to help you find the scale tones. This is far more use to you creatively than reading the music.

You should anticipate spending a lot of time on this. Remember that in the end you want to be able:

  • to build both pentatonic major and minor scales at the keyboard on any note (quickly!);

  • to hear pentatonic riffs in your head and name the notes using the pentatonic shorthand, and

  • to play at the keyboard any pentatonic music you hear in your head or on disc.

That’s not a done-it-once-and-move-on task!

    Ear training tasks

Train yourself to sing the pentatonic scales. Sing along with any (or all) of the audio clips in the Musicarta Pentatonic Scales lessons, both with your eyes closed and looking at the many examples of pentatonic shorthand (T, m3 etc.). Your singing doesn’t have to be in tune – it’s not for public consumption. Just the relative size of the gaps has to be clear in your mind.

Test your progress by seeing if you can pick out the major and minor pentatonic scale tones ‘by ear’ with your eyes closed from a random white piano key.

    Working with the Major/Relative Minor version

A major pentatonic scale and its relative minor pentatonic scale both use the same five notes. Here is a diagram which shows how the scale tones line up:

pentatonic scales

The audio file plays the minor scale up and down, then the major, then it repeats. Use it for your ear-training tasks. Try to find the scales on the keyboard – they’re all-white-key scales.

Because the two scales use the same five notes, they sound a lot more ‘related’ than major and minor pentatonic scales built on the same root. Here is a little study which uses both scales:

pentatonic scales

(Download a printable pdf file of this study.)

The audio file plays straight through without the repeats.

You should aim to be able to ‘transpose’ this study into any key – that is, play it using the five notes of any pair of pentatonic major and minor scales, according to the shorthand.

The pentatonic scales in the major/relative minor pdf file are arranged according to how many black keys they use. You might find this a useful grouping when it comes to memorising the scales.

The combined major/relative minor pentatonic scale is a great scale for just ‘meandering about’ in.


This is the end of Pentatonic Scales Lesson 3. In the next module, you will learn a ready-to-roll A minor pentatonic riff with two variations

In the meantime, use the series directory page to check for new pentatonic scales modules and to cycle back through the previous lessons. You must expect to work through the material over and over and mess about for many hours if you want the music to flow freely!

Check out the tabs on the Musicarta home page navbar for a full description of all Musicarta’s free piano lessons online.

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