The Power of the Pentatonic Scale

August 17, 2009 by  
Filed under New World Music, News - Nouvelles

In the incredible, entertaining video below, Bobby McFerrin the well-known jazz and a Capella vocal performer, engages the audience at the World Science Festival in June in New York City.  After just a few easy directions, the entire auditorium is following McFerrin’s lead, showing the power of the pentatonic scale (a pentatonic scale has five pitches per octave, instead of seven as in the major scale).

Tuned to Major C Pentatonic (image from alikins on Flickr)

Tuned to Major C Pentatonic (image from alikins on Flickr)

The program, entitled “Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus,” included a panel of experts in addition to McFerrin.  As described on the official website of the World Music Science Festival, the audience learned just as much as they were entertained:

“Is our response to music hard-wired or culturally determined? Is the reaction to rhythm and melody universal or influenced by environment? Join host John Schaefer, Jamshed Barucha, scientist Daniel Levitin, Professor Lawrence Parsons and musical artist Bobby McFerrin for live performances and cross cultural demonstrations to illustrate music’s note-worthy interaction with the brain and our emotions.”

In related articles, we’ve explored how music soothes the soul, as well as how listening to a particular song can take you on a musical journey.  Clearly, there is a strong connection between melody and mood.  To help answer the question as to whether our response to music is “hard-wired,” or a result of our environment, McFerrin noted that he gets the same reaction from audiences around the globe – no matter which country or culture – when getting them to engage with in singing with him.

Chalk one up for the pentatonic scale!

The Pentatonic Scale is great for learning (image from hoyasmeg on Flickr)

The Pentatonic Scale is great for learning (image from hoyasmeg on Flickr)

There must be a powerful, innate response to this musical scale that cannot be attributed to cultural surroundings.  In fact, Wikipedia notes that the pentatonic scale is very common around the world:

“Including but not limited to Celtic folk music, Hungarian folk music, West African music, African-American spirituals, Jazz, American blues music and rock music, Sami joik singing, children’s songs, the Greek traditional music and songs from Epirus, Northwest Greece and the music of Southern Albania, the tuning of the Ethiopian krar and the Indonesian gamelan, Philippine Kulintang, melodies of Korea, Japan, China and Vietnam (including the folk music of these countries), the Afro-Caribbean tradition, Polish highlanders from the Tatra Mountains, and Western Classical composers such as French composer Claude Debussy. The pentatonic scale is also used on the Great Highland Bagpipe.”

Given this history and the impressive power of the pentatonic scale as shown by Bobby McFerrin, its not surprising that music educators rely heavily on the scale, particularly at the primary level.  Orff-based systems and instruments (such as xylophones) emphasize improvisation through the pentatonic scale, especially because you cannot make harmonic mistakes with only the 5 tones.  If you want to learn to play guitar, you’ll need to learn the pentatonic scales, too.  You will notice recognizable melodies that are built on this foundation, no matter what genre of music you prefer.

Do you know the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace“?  If so, you’re enjoying the pentatonic melodies that have permeated our hearts and souls for many years.

Science and music may not be natural bedfellows, but it is always fascinating to me to see recent research and discover more about the origins of our musical tastes and genres.  A huge thanks to Bobby McFerrin and the rest of the panel at the World Science Festival for showing us the power of the pentatonic scale!

Other posts you may enjoy: More on New World Music with Womad, Peter Gabriel, More on Pop Music with Annie Lennox, Sade, More on Marcome’s world , Enjoy best New Age Music, Fantastic New Age Singers.

Click image to listen to Marcome's music

Click image to listen to Marcome’s music

Click image to listen to Zen Voices

Click image to listen to Zen Voices

Click image to listen to Seven Seas

Click image to listen to Seven Seas

Click image to listen to Ougainatso

Click image to listen to Ougainatso

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Thanks for your comments. Marcomé


5 Responses to “The Power of the Pentatonic Scale”
  1. Love it! This folds beautifully into my other obsession, the Fibonacci Series of numbers. 5 is such a beautiful number too. And to think, all those beautiful harmonies can be created with so little effort. Funny isn’t it? The more complicated the world gets, the better the simple things sound. :-D

  2. Roberta says:

    Dearest Marcome, greetings from our family for your precious presence with us. We wish you continued success, we will forever guard the beautiful chant you gave to us, it was a grace. Hvala and may you come back to us one day. Roberta and family from Dubrovnik


Check out what others are saying about this post...
  1. […] Here is a different way of looking at the Pentatonic scale which as already mentioned is the most used scale in rock and blues music. Check out Bobby McFerrin's Video. I thought it was amazing. Just tells you no matter how we look like, we're all wired all the same. The Power of the Pentatonic Scale […]

  2. […] you loved this post, be sure to check out Animals Having a Good Time and The Power of the Pentatonic Scale. Please Share Marcome’s Music Thank […]

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