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Timeline: The Pentatonic Scale

James Stewart
Public Domain
The most common form of the "C" major pentatonic scale contains no half-steps or leading tones.

James: You’re hearing recording artist Bobby McFerrin at the 2009 World Science Festival. I asked a couple of my friends to watch a video of Bobby leading the crowd in a musical, communal social experiment and give us their reactions.

Liam: I’m Liam Elder-Conners

Robin: I’m Robin Turneau. I just saw Bobby McFerrin take an audience in the palm of his hands and have them create music along with him.

Liam: I’m guessing he didn’t tell them he was doing that. He just sort of gave them a note and then he taught them that note and then he would jump to the next stage of the scale and was using him as a bouncing ball to lead them up and down the scale, but he only told them I think the first two notes of the scale and so then when he jumped a third time after giving them the first two notes they intuitively went to the third note of the scale and everyone started laughing. You could tell they were all really surprised that that happened.

Robin: You understand the scales going up and down and it’s sort of a part of all of us.

Liam: I mean, music’s always been a communal thing in bringing people together.

Robin: We all speak the same language and it seems to be music.

James: Bobby McFerrin is using the pentatonic scale in this social experiment.

Even if you’ve never heard of it before, you can probably intuit from the name that the pentatonic scale is a set of 5 notes.  The typical major or minor scale (that we learned as children) has seven different notes – Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti - but the pentatonic skips a few these to reach the octave. Do, Re, Fa, Sol, La - There are several different forms of the scale, but this pattern of five notes has been discovered in almost every culture on the planet.  The most frequently observed form is the one I just played for you.  It contains most of the notes of the major scale but without any semitones, half-steps, leading tones. Those names are unimportant right now, the real point is that you could easily play a pentatonic scale right now, just sit down at a piano and play nothing but the black notes that you see.

That’s my youngest son, Isaac when he was only six-years-old. He’s never been interested in the piano, the piano is dad’s thing. Isaac was always more interested in cars and soccer. But on this day I asked Isaac to experiment at the piano, for just a few minutes. The only rule is that you can only use the black keys on the keyboard. I set him loose to see what he would do and asked him if he could pick out any song he knew using just those notes.

There are so many recognizable melodies that you can play with just this five note collection - "Amazing Grace", "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", "Camptown Races", "Ring Around the Rosie", "Auld Lang Syne", "Old MacDonald had a Farm" - And it’s not just in hymns, folk tunes and children’s melodies. You can also hear it in the song “My Girl” made popular by The Temptations or Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” or even “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream. So you’ll hear it in the popular music written today as well and in the masterworks of the classical tradition; in the melodies of Debussy’s “The Girl with the Flaxen Hair” and Ravel’s “Mother Goose Suite”. You’ll also find it in the folk and popular traditions of almost every culture on every continent on this planet.

Bobby McFerrin observed this after he concluded his social experiment at the World Science Festival…

McFerrin: Regardless of where I am, anywhere, every audience gets that, it doesn’t matter, you know, it’s just the pentatonic scale for some reason.

Follow the Timeline.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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