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Power of the Pentatonic

by Sharon Mazion - Breck School

Note from David Birrow: Sharon sent me this excellent reply to last week's posts about the pentatonic
            scale's use in general music settings. I thought it was convincing and warranted it's own post.

I tend to approach my teaching more from an Orff/Kodaly standpoint, so the pentatonic is very important to me.  That being said, I certainly do not limit my students’ “musical diet” to songs solely built on the pentatonic.  It is important that students from a young age experience a wide repertoire of songs in varying meter and tonality.
Becoming literate in music is not unlike learning a primary language:  we begin by speaking words and phrases and gradually become conversant in the language.  After we are successful in speaking the language, we begin to attach symbolic meaning. We learn to speak a language not because we are only exposed to a few select words at a time, but because we hear the language as a whole.  

Music learning happens in much the same manner.  Once we are able to speak in a musical language (most often this begins with singing) we then begin to attach symbolic meaning. This is where the power of the pentatonic comes in. By using a limited spectrum of tonality, beginning with sol-mi or mi-re-do, we can ask students to decode, identify, read, write and create new musical pieces.  (This is much akin to how students begin reading language through sight words.) Once we are fluent with these melodic building blocks, we expand the melodic spectrum in increments:  pentatonic, extended pentatonic, hexatonic and finally diatonic tonality. While we are building student's "working vocabulary" and literacy skills through the pentatonic, we are also continuing to fill their ears and building repertoire with pieces that represent a variety of tonalities.
In addition providing a strong foundation on which to build musical literacy, the pentatonic scale is a bridge to more complex music-making.  In understanding the pentatonic, we open the doorway to many world musics, whose tonalities are often based on the pentatonic scale. And while I know Gordon (whose work I have limited experience with) feels that working with a tonal set  including "fa" and "ti" helps to ground a tonal center, I feel it pertinent to bring up what constitutes tonal center. Tonal center is often defined by the construction of a melody. The keys to creating or feeling a tonal center comes from the idea that a melody will often begin and/or end on a given tone, and it will appear frequently in the melody. This is an important concept that young musicians can easily grasp when working within the limited structure of the pentatonic scale, and sets the groundwork for singing, playing and creating music regardless of tonality.
So, I would concur that providing children with a musical repertoire that includes diatonic, modal and limited pitch-set material is crucial. I also know, that the pentatonic is built upon universal melodic building blocks that help children to become literate musicians and successful creators of new musical material.
So....what earth shattering gem have I unearthed here? Nothing really. Students need to hear and experience in a wide variety of tonalities, but it is the pentatonic scale that provides the keys to unlock musical understanding for students in a general music setting. The pentatonic scale is pervasive in the folk music of our country as well as Western European folk music. It is these songs that form a large part of the foundation of songs that children sing throughout childhood. In addition, Carl Orff gives us a wonderful resource in his "Schulwerk".  His approach provides a framework in which to  develop artistic musicians and young composers by entering through the pentatonic, moving through hexatonic and finally to diatonic melodies and functional harmony.  

Pentatonic scale:  A scale built upon five notes, lacking the most dissonant intervals found in a diatonic scale.  A device helpful in building musicians in a general music setting?  Definitely!  What about in a traditional beginning band or orchestra setting?  Probably not so much - maybe you should ask them! 

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