Terry Shaw's
MusicPotential logo
716 North 100 East    |    Price, Utah 84501    |    (435) 637-4604    |    Contact Us

Skip Navigation Links.

Specialized Lessons
Pentatonic Modes

Pentatonic scales are widely used for improvisation in most styles of music. If you learn them on your instrument I guarantee you will get a lot of mileage out of them.

"Penta" means five . Not counting the octave note a pentatonic scale contains five notes. (Six counting the octave note.) They are derived from the seven modes, so therefore there are seven pentatonic scales in a key. We will be concerned with six of them. (The seventh pentatonic is an obscure musical structure which has limited use.) If you do not understand modes you need to refer to Sequencing Modes.

 

Major Pentaonic Scales

Major pentatonics are created by removing the fourth and seventh notes from the three major modes. This results in like structures: whole steps between 1-2, 2-3, 5-6, and one and a half steps between 3-5 and 6-8. The harmonic structure, or triad (1-3-5), remains intact making them very pleasing to the ear.

major mode
 definition

major pentatonic

4 & 7
1.) ionian  3-4, 7-8

 G - A - B - D - E - G

 C & F#
 4.) lydian  4-5, 7-8

 C - D - E - G - A - C

 F# & B
 5.) mixolydian  3-4, 6-7

 D - E - F# - A - B - D

 G & C

 

Minor Pentaonic Scales

Minor pentatonics are created by removing the second and sixth notes from the three minor modes. This results in like structures: whole steps between 3-4, 4-5, and 7-8 and one and a half steps between 1-3 and 5-7. The harmonic structure (1-3-5) remains intact.

minor mode
 definition

minor pentatonic

2 & 6
2.) dorian  2-3, 6-7

 A - C - D - E - G - A

 B & F#
3.) phrygian  1-2, 5-6

 B - D - E - F# - A - B

 C & G
6.) aeolian  2-3, 5-6

 E - G - A - B - D - E

 F# & C

An F# minor pentatonic-b5 (F#-A-B-C-E-F#) could be played against a 7dim chord. However, this is an obscure musical structure which can be bypassed. Because the 7dim chord (F#dim) is disguarded in favor of its substitution, the 57 chord (D7), you can play the D pentatonic with the D7 chord.

 

Relative Pentaonics

A close observation of all the pentatonics reveals a relative relationship between the majors and minors. For instance the G ionian pentatonic (major) and the E aeolian pentatonic (minor) have the same notes in them, and therefore would create the same fingering pattern on an instrument. They would just begin on different notes. The C lydian pentatonic (major) and A dorian pentatonic (minor) also have the same notes in them as do the D mixolydian (major) and B phrygian (minor). These relationships are the same in every key.

 

Pentatonics vs. Modes

Modes and pentatonics are used in the same manner when improvising and can be interchanged with each other. (A pentatonic is just a sub-set of a mode.) However, modes are key-specific while pentatonics can be used in other keys (just like the corresponding chords.) For example a G ionian mode can only be used in the key of one sharp but a G pentatonic can be used wherever a G chord appears --number one in the key of G (one sharp), number four in the key of D (two sharps), and number five in the key of C (no sharps or flats). An A dorian mode can only be used in the key of one sharp but an Am pentatonic can be used wherever an Am chord appears--number two in the key of G (one sharp), number three in the key of F (one flat), and number six in the key of C (no sharps or flats.)

A trade-off occurs: Modes are easier to play within a key because they all have the same notes in them, therefore they create the same fingerings. However, each mode is used only in that specific key. Pentatonics are more difficult because there are three unique fingerings (for each major there is a relative minor). However, they can be used in two other keys.

 

EXERCISE: Sequencing Pentatonics

Using perfect practice methods sequence the G pentatonic scale in ascending and descending fours non-stop until fluent. (Practice this to a G-chord background.) Then do the same with Em pentatonic. (Practice this to an Em-chord background.)

Do the same with C and Am pentatonics.

Do the same with D and Bm pentatonics.

 

Use the three-step practice method to play the following exercises which will prepare you for playing pentatonics in context to all of the chords in a major key. (Create a chordal background to play with.)

 

Ascending Chords, Ascending Pentatonics

 chord

 pentatonic

 notes
 G  G pentatonic

 G - A - B - D - E - G
 Am  Am pentatonic

 A - C - D - E - G - A
 Bm  Bm pentatonic

 B - D - E - F# - A - B
 C  C pentatonic

 C - D - E - G - A - C
 D  D pentatonic

 D - E - F# - A - B - D
 Em  Em pentatonic

 E - G - A - B - D - E
 D7  D pentatonic

 D - E - F# - A - B - D

 

Ascending Chords, Descending Pentatonics

 chord

 pentatonic

 notes
 G  G pentatonic

 G - E - D - B - A - G
 Am  Am pentatonic

 A - G - E - D - C - A
 Bm  Bm pentatonic

 B - A - F# - E - D - B
 C  C pentatonic

 C - A - G - E - D - C
 D  D pentatonic

 D - B - A - F# - E - D
 Em  Em pentatonic

 E - D - B - A - G - E
 D7  D pentatonic

 D - B - A - F# - E - D

 

Descending Chords, Descending Pentatonics

 chord

 pentatonic

 notes
 G  G pentatonic

 G - E - D - B - A - G
 D7  D pentatonic

 D - B - A - F# - E - D
 Em  Em pentatonic

 E - D - B - A - G - E
 D  D pentatonic

 D - B - A - F# - E - D
 C  C pentatonic

 C - A - G - E - D - C
 Bm  Bm pentatonic

B - A - F# - E - D - B 
 Am  Am pentatonic

 A - G - E - D - C - A

 

Descending Chords, Ascending Pentatonics

 chord

 pentatonic

 notes
 G  G pentatonic

 G - A - B - D - E - G
 D7  D pentatonic

 D - E - F# - A - B - D
 Em  Em pentatonic

 E - G - A - B - D - E
 D  D pentatonic

 D - E - F# - A - B - D
 C  C pentatonic

 C - D - E - G - A - C
 Bm  Bm pentatonic

B - D - E - F# - A - B 
 Am  Am pentatonic

 A - C - D - E - G - A