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Pentatonic Scale: Friend or Foe?

March 13, 2013

by David Birrow Birrow.David@MacPhail.org

8c10174rThe pentatonic scale is certainly common in music from around the world. As a percussionist, I've been in African and Javanese percussion ensembles that have used the scale almost exclusively and of course I think that students should experience music from non-Western cultures as much as possible. And when it comes to initial experiences teaching improvisation, it helps to limit the tonal choices for students. If I need a general music class to whip together some improv real quick, I'd use the pentatonic scale. But when it comes to song material with younger students, I've only used two songs which are pentatonic with my general music students in the past three years. So I do have some doubts when it comes to using the scale with young students.   

My doubts don't stem from the cultural or practical aspects of the scale, but rather the cognitive. In Edwin Gordon's work, the ability of the mind to "think music" is referred to as Audiation.  Therefore, a general music or instrumental teacher's main musical and curricular responsibility is to establish a sense of tonality and rhythmic feeling in students.  Those two cognitive processes can then be generalized to any aspect of human musical life, whether it be listening, performing, improvising, reading, composing, moving, or any other way humans interact with music.  But without the ability to recognize and interact meaningfully with meter or tonality, students either get sick of music class/lessons or learn to fake the ability to Audiate, often relying on mnemonics, muscle memory, or guesswork.  My undergraduate advisor in music education, Dr. Nicholas Decarbo, referred to this as "playing by smell."

Gordon does not consider the pentatonic scale a tonality in the tonal learning sequence.  He writes on pages 167-68 in Learning Sequences in Music: A Contemporary Music Learning Theory: 2007 Edition  that: "without "fa" and/or "ti" to serve as characteristic tones, objective tonality cannot be audiated."1 In other words pentatonic melodies "float" without an objective resting tone and the listener can choose any of the scale degrees as the resting tone and infer major or minor tonality subjectively. This seems problematic to me when teaching a class of young students: you want everybody in the room to be audiating the same resting tone and tonality, at least to begin with. Just like a math teacher wants all students to learn 2 + 2=4.  That being said, as students develop, you do want to challenge their audiation by playing and performing songs that require the student to establish the resting tone on their own.  But with younger and/or less experienced students, you want to start by teaching the ability to audiate major and harmonic minor tonality. Then later on the pentatonic scale will be interpreted as a subset of the major scale.  

Now this isn't to say the Orff and Kodály teachers use pentatonic material exclusively, even with young children.  I don't know any general music teachers who do that. And the more I teach, the more I realize how little we actually know about music learning and how every approach has it's strengths.  I just think that young students will be confused tonally when the bulk of their music in class is in pentatonic.  Ruth Pollock Hamm explains in an old Music Educators Journal article: "One uses the pentatonic until it has served its purpose with the children."2 The question that must be addressed is: What exactly is the purpose? Is it to boost student motivation by eliminating dissonance when improvising or to expose students to non-Western music? Like I said, the purpose of general music instruction is to instill a sense of tonality and rhythmic feeling.

The composition/improvisation angle comes up a lot in this type of discussion. The danger in using the pentatonic early on when using recorder or xylophone for composition/improvisation is that students will be exploring, rather than thinking.  For instance, a student might be able to hit the notes on a xylophone with having an idea of what the resultant melody will be.  Indeed, many adults feel this way with their own improvising and music making.  Hamm goes on to argue on page 91 that the pentatonic is a strong choice "...because he (the student) can create over an accompaniment of various ostinati patterns, without frustrations or need for the knowledge of harmony."3  I'd argue the exact opposite: the weakness of the pentatonic scale is students can create music without any cognitive activity.  

John Kratus ran an experiment using different xylophone configurations in his paper "Effect of Available Tonality and Pitch Options on Children's Compositional Processes and Products" in Journal of Research in Music Education. He writes on page 303 that: "The use of a diatonic tonality resulted in songs that were more likely to end on the starting pitch than were songs composed with a pentatonic tonality(62.5% compared to 20.8%)"4 So students were three times as likely to end on the resting tone while using diatonic. I interpret this as meaning that students were better able to audiate the resting tone when composing with diatonic. There are obviously other factors at play here including the fact that C pentatonic was used and students may have just been physically/visually shooting for the note furthest to the left on the instrument.  Also music education studies like these need to be replicated with a variety of populations before you can generalize to humans as a species.

So all this makes me wary of using the pentatonic scale until I am sure students can audiate major and harmonic minor tonalities.  Anecdotally, when students improvise in my classes with the pentatonic I feel like they are "playing by smell," rather than making deliberate musical decisions. Melodies tend to wander without direction and often end on non-chord tones.  An analog with rhythm might be how student tempo often rushes and drags when using speech rhythms instead of rhythm syllables.  However, there is something to be said about using materials that will get students engaged quickly, especially in situations with students of varying musical backgrounds. So if using pentatonic and speech rhythms in the short term gets students involved and engaged with music rather than tuning out, then by all means use them, I would.  And I won't exclude the pentatonic scale to the detriment of including music from non-Western cultures.

I hope this article has created a sort of "buyer beware" counterpoint to Sarah's excellent article from last Friday. I certainly think pentatonic material has a place in a curriculum, but the application should be thoughtful and researched. I encourage you to check out the full length articles mentioned here as well as Music Learning Theory (Edwin Gordon's work).  Please share your experience in the comments below and please disagree with me!


1. Gordon, Edwin (2007). Learning Sequences in Music: A Contemporary Music Learning Theory: 2007 Edition. Chicago, GIA Publications.

2. Pollock, Ruth Hamm (Apr. - May, 1964). Orff Defended. Educators Journal, Vol. 50, No. 5 , pp. 90-92.

3. ibid.

4. Kratus, J.K. (Winter, 2001). Effect of Available Tonality and Pitch Options on Children's Compositional Processes and Products. Journal of Research in Music Education, Vol. 49, No. 4,  pp. 294-306.

Photo Credit: "8c10174r" by Children's Bureau Centennial, on Flickr CC-SA

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I think we can have our cake and eat it too.

I think that the main purpose of music education is to develop whole musicians. And a huge part of that- maybe the biggest part- is instilling a sense of tonality and rhythmic feeling. And I agree that diatonic improvisation is the best way to do this.

But pentatonic improvisation-especially with good guidance from the teacher- is a great opportunity to focus on musicianship concepts like dynamics, sound quality, texture, etc. I think students are more likely to engage in open-minded listening when "playing by smell", and I think it is getting harder and harder to help students cultivate active listening skills in our perpetually overstimulated environment. I don't think any one tonal "schema" (to borrow from Piaget) is the best route- using both helps students feel comfortable with both.

In my piano studio, I've noticed that students who are too tied to diatonic are overly worried about "wrong notes", often at the expense of their overall musicality.

A great way to implement both pentatonic and diatonic music into classroom is with lots of using opening and closing ritual songs, perhaps using "one of each", just to make sure that students' ears get a daily dose.

As for rhythmic feeling, there could never be enough reinforcement.

Maybe this is the typical diplomatic, middle-child response, but I don't believe we have to choose.

I'm with you on most of this, especially improvisation! check out the Bobby Hutcherson article for proof.

An important distinction here is between teaching instrumental improvisation and teaching classroom/general music. I should have been clearer: my concern is with classroom teaching (including improvisation). I too use pentatonic and other non-diatonic scales to teach improvisation. But my concern lies in using solely or at least predominantly pentatonic materials in classroom settings with young children who have not been exposed to large amounts of diatonic music. If students haven't had the chance to build a sense of resting tone and tonality by using diatonic materials, then the pentatonic scale is just going to further confuse things, or at least delay the development of the sense of tonality. I think the pentatonic scale, when used in songs, is audiated with reference to the major scale, that is, students are silently audiating "FA" and "TI" in order to place the resting tone.

That being said, that is from a strictly theoretically perspective and assumes that students would only hear pentatonic songs both inside and outside of the classroom. Highly unlikely. Also I haven't come across any empirical research that convincingly proves that exposure to only pentatonic material delays a sense of tonality.

When it comes to instrumental improvisation, the fear would be that students would improvise with the pentatonic scale and have nothing going on in their heads(tonally speaking). As you note, they would however be able to focus on expressive aspects of the music, which certainly is important. But I'm glad when private students hit 'wrong' notes when improvising with the diatonic scale and react negatively, because it means they are listening and realize that they are on a dissonant with the harmony. The worst case scenario is when a student is on a dissonant note but doesn't realize it.

I suppose a more apt question might be "why include pentatonic from a tonal perspective", rather than how it is practical to use in the classroom or studio. Alright this comment is approaching the length of a regular blog post so I better shut it down!