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Ten Super Sunny Joys of the Pentatonic Scale

by Sarah Hruska-Olson Olson.Sarah@MacPhail.org

Many years ago, I took my son to an ECFE parent/infant class.  The instructor gave us a sheet entitled, “The 10 Super Sunny Joys of Peek-a-Boo.”  Peek-a-boo is such a natural and universal game to play with babies, but there are so many great underlying developmental reasons to play even more peek-a-boo with your child.  (I realize that this is a whole other blog topic but some of the benefits of peek-a-boo include bonding with caregivers, recognizing different facial expressions, and learning object permanency.) 

For some reason, I keep thinking about this sheet when I want to describe all of the reasons why I love the pentatonic scale as a music educator.  Pentatonic melodies are as universal, natural, and joyful as a game of peek-a-boo, but there are so many different, wonderful reasons to use the pentatonic scale with young musicians. 

Just to be clear, I am talking about the type of pentatonic scale that uses the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th scale degrees of a major scale, (do, re, mi, so, and la.)  Here are a few of my favorite things about this simple combination of pitches:

  1. Providing children with musical instruments that are set up to use only pentatonic pitches will improve the aesthetics of open-ended instrument exploration.  For instance, my ECM colleague Cheryl Henningsgaard takes off all the “f” and “b” bars on the glockenspiels before she lets her class of three-year-olds explore the instruments with mallets.  The children have the freedom to play whatever they like, but the overall sound will be more pleasing due to the removal of the half step pitches.  In turn, this keeps everyone’s ears from becoming overwhelmed, which makes it possible to explore the instruments for a longer time.
  1. High quality pentatonic folk songs can be found in cultures around the world.  For example, African American spirituals, Chinese folk songs, and Appalachian melodies are all rich sources for beautiful, simple pentatonic tunes.  Multicultural pentatonic melodies contribute to the authenticity, quality, and historical connection of a good classroom music curriculum.
  1. Pentatonic patterns and melodies are perfect components of elemental music. “Elemental music” is one of those terms that Orff Schulwerk teachers  sometimes throw around without really explaining what they mean.  I found this wonderful definition by Orff presenter, Nick Wild:

 “Elemental music is pattern-based music built on natural speech and body rhythms, familiar melodic patterns, and simple forms that can be learned, created, understood, and performed without extensive technical or theoretical musical training.”  Here is a link to Mr. Wild’s intriguing article on elemental music:  http://www.scalantropio.com/Orff/whatiselementalmusic.html 

The pentatonic scale can be broken down into “so-mi-la” and “mi-re-do” patterns that are easily understood by young children, even when they haven’t had much musical experience.  Combining these simple melodic patterns with natural speech rhythms, simple movement, and ostinato accompaniments creates a type of music that immediately invites participation and experimentation.

  1. Pentatonic pitch combinations help children learn to sing in tune.  I start with the “so-mi” and “so-mi-la” pitch combinations.  Puppets, singing games, and visual aids are all helpful tools.  “Mi-re-do” combinations are also very manageable for developing vocal accuracy with slightly older children.
  1. The pentatonic scale is great for improvisation.  It is so much fun to make up melodies that have no wrong answers due to the forgiving nature of the pentatonic scale.  As a classical singer, I was never taught to improvise.  The pentatonic improvisation I learned in my Orff-Schulwerk training set me free.  I love helping children learn to do something that I never tried until I was an adult.  A speech rhythm or poem can so easily become an original pentatonic melody on the xylophone or recorder.
  1. “La” based pentatonic melodies introduce children to the minor mode.  Simply by starting and ending on “la,” children discover that they can set a whole new mood with the same set of notes.  Beginning recorder players can create many beautiful minor melodies with just the “E, G, A, B” pitches.  When you switch back to some do-based melodies, children begin to hear the difference between major and minor modes independently.
  1. Pentatonic melodies are easily transposed.   Once children learn a simple pentatonic melody in one key, it is easy to figure it out in other keys.  Children as young as second grade can be successful at transposing simple pentatonic melodies on Orff xylophones.  Some of my students also enjoy figuring out pentatonic songs from class on their pianos at home in the key of their choice. 
  1. Some pentatonic melodies have an implied chord change.  Some pentatonic melodies have a strong pull toward the V chord if they land on the 2nd scale degree on a strong beat.  You can create a simple accompaniment that moves between the I and V chords to give children an early exposure to functional harmony.  They get to try out a chord change without having to negotiate any tricky half steps in the melody.
  1. It is so easy to add a blue note!  Set up an Orff xylophone in G pentatonic.  (This means that you take of the “F” and “C” bars.  Next, put a b-flat in between the a and b bars.  Students will be delighted with their new bluesy sound.  If they are already familiar with the basic pentatonic scale, the blues scale will be easy for them to work with too.  I like to teach older students the 12 bar blues chord pattern to accompany the blues scale melodies they create.
  1.  When it is time to leave the pentatonic nest, a strong pentatonic background will give students a confident sense of tonal center.  As children move on to more complicated, diatonic melodies, they will have a strong scaffolding from their experiences with the pentatonic scale!


Photo Credit: "Fisher Price Pull A Tune Xylophone by cyanide45, on Flickr CC-SA

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