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Lesson 160: Pentatonic Melody

When Is a Melody Pentatonic?

A melody can be pentatonic in the following ways:

  • The melody is 100 % pentatonic, all the notes are from the same pentatonic scale
  • The melody is almost 100 % pentatonic - one or a couple of ( passing) tones from outside the pentatonic scale are used
  • Part of the melody is pentatonic - then as a kind of release, the rest of the melody uses another scale/ mode
  • The pentatonic scale changes at some point - the melody first uses notes from one pentatonic scale, then notes from another pentatonic scale

The Pentatonic Scales

This is what I refer to as the major and minor pentatonic scales:

  • C major pentatonic: c d e g a - the steps are 1 2 3 5 6
  • A minor pentatonic: a c d e g - the steps are 1 b3 4 5 b7

This means the the A minor pentatonic scale is a mode of the C major pentatonic scale, i.e. they contain exactly the same notes.

The Pentatonic Scale Is a Gear You Can Shift Into

I think that it was Mick Goodrick who referred to the pentatonic scale as "a gear you can shift into". You can use this "pentatonic gear" when writing a melody or when you are improvising.

Harmonizing a Pentatonic Melody

A pentatonic scale has no half steps. That means that a pentatonic melody doesn't resolve, but kind of "floats freely". It can therefore be harmonized very freely and there are a lot of possibilities when choosing the chords.

An especially nice way to use the pentatonic scale is to "color it" with chords not entirely diatonic to the key of the pentatonic scale. Check out

where I talk about this more extensively. This results in a mild form of poly-tonality with a feeling of the melody being in one key and the harmony in another...

Examples

Listen to the following tunes:

  • Beatrice by Sam Rivers
  • Cantaloupe Island by Herbie Hancock
  • Chameleon by Herbie Hancock
  • Don't Worry, Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin
  • E.S.P. by Wayne Shorter
  • Hollow Talk by Choir of Young Believers
  • Last Train Home by Pat Metheny
  • Li'l Darlin' by Neal Hefti
  • Mercy, Mercy, Mercy by Joe Zawinul
  • Mr. C by Max Schultz
  • Pack Up by Eliza Doolittle
  • Sonnymoon for Two by Sonny Rollins
  • Sunny by Bobby Hebb

2017 Tomas Karlsson. All rights reserved.