Why do Pentatonic Scales sound so good?

Just 5 notes, but with sooooo many possibilities!

Pentatonic scales are perhaps the most flexible of all musical material. Why? (you ask.) Simple: there’s an absence of tension.

Try an experiment: Sit down at your piano or keyboard and improvise on the black notes. Sounds good, right? In fact, you can play anything you like on the black notes and it won’t sound “bad” at all. That’s because you’re playing the Gb Pentatonic Scale.

Pentatonic Scales, as their name implies, contain 5 notes. The most common pentatonic scale contains the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, scale steps of the major scale. In C, this gives us C D E G A.

Do you notice what’s missing?

Yes, the 4th and 7th degrees of the major scale. In C, these are F and B. Play them together on the piano. They form the interval of a tritone (augmented 4th) and sound “unresolved.” F and B are also a half-step away from E and C, respectively.

So if we play a major scale and leave out the F and B, we leave out the possibility of unresolved dissonance and also the half steps. What are we left with? Whole steps and relatively consonant scalar relationships.

That’s why the pentatonic scale sounds so good in so many context, an it’s why it’s used in so many different types of music. From Irish jigs to contemporary jazz, from blues to rock, and from nursery rhymes to pop, pentatonic scales sound great wherever they appear.

Try some pentatonic improvising the next time you sit down at your piano to play. They’re a lot of fun, and it’s easy to get a good sense of flow going quickly, which is the key to improvising.

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