Last Friday, I provided the program for our local Music Teachers’ Association. My title was “Unlocking Your Students’ Creative Potential: A Report From The 88 Creative Keys Conference.” If you read here, you know that I attended this conference in Denver last summer, and have been inspired to incorporate many more creative elements in my teaching. It makes sense to me to think of teaching music as teaching a language. Just as we learn to read and interpret, we learn to express our own thoughts with it. As I explore how to teach my students to do this (and how to do it myself), I am finding that the pentatonic scale may be the most powerful tool at my disposal. Don’t know what the pentatonic scale is? Keep reading!
In this video Bobby McFerrin plays the crowd, quite literally, using the pentatonic scale. You’ll laugh out loud at how he sets up expectations and, using no words at all, gets the crowd to sing exactly what he wants. He says this works everywhere he goes as long as he sticks to the pentatonic.
If you have a couple of hours, you can watch the whole panel discussion that took place at the World Science Festival in 2009: Notes & Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus. (I haven’t watched it myself yet – it’s a long video.)
In my presentation, I asked for a show of hands to this question, “Who has heard of the pentatonic scale?” Only about 20% of an audience of piano teachers raised their hand. Everybody in the room had a music degree, but most of them looked puzzled. The person who confidently gave a definition was the one whose dad is an accomplished jazz player. Go figure. I should point out that pentatonic scales are not the same as pentascales. The words are similar, but “pentascale” refers to the first five notes of the regular 8-note major or minor scales. The pentaTONIC scale is something different. I think the lack of knowledge about the pentatonic scale among piano teachers is a big problem. Here’s why.
The pentatonic scale is probably the most widely-used scale in the world. It is used in the folk music of almost every culture from Appalachia to Germany to Greece to Africa to the Far East. There are even those who suggest that the pentatonic scale is a universal human phenomenon, that we are biologically predisposed to it. It’s ubiquitous in jazz and pop music. Composers who were inspired by folk music (Bartok, Dvorak, etc.) used it widely. You’ll hear it in Chopin (think Black Key Etude) and Debussy (think Pagodes from Estampes). You’ll hear it in playground chants – nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah sung to the scale pitches 5-3-6-5-3. You know how it goes!
Let’s put this in context – lots of pianists with music degrees are unfamiliar with the most widely-used scale in the world.
This fact is amusing since the pentatonic scale is visibly evident on the piano. It corresponds to the black keys!
How does this happen? Is it because we’re too sophisticated for folk music idioms? Chopin and Debussy weren’t. I think it’s more likely due to the fact that our piano degree programs are so focused on teaching literature. The music ed. majors are ahead of the pianists in recognizing the power of the pentatonic because Orff and Kodaly methods draw heavily on pentatonic material. Those of us who teach piano to children can take a cue from our music ed. friends and start making use of the power of the pentatonic scale to teach our students how to speak the musical language for themselves.
While there are several versions of the pentatonic scale, the most common form is very easy. Take any major scale and leave out the 4th and 7th degrees – that’s a major pentatonic scale. So, C Major pentatonic is C, D, E, G, and A. The Gb major pentatonic scale is just the black keys on the piano. Elementary school kids learn it with ease. This scale demystifies melodic improvisation instantly because all of the notes will fit in reasonably well with any diatonic chord progression within that key. In fact, one of my favorite slogans from the 88 Creative Keys conference is Bradley’s famous advice about improvising a solo line: “When in doubt, pent out.” Of course, if you are improvising in a classical style, there are voice-leading concerns, but as a precursor to more sophisticated improvisation in either a classical or jazz style, learning to “pent out” over diatonic chord progressions is a good way to develop your ear and your internal musical vocabulary. It’s an ideal way to help young piano students (and anyone new to improvisation) grow comfortable speaking in the musical language.
Check out Pentatonic Power Part 2 for some very practical suggestions for incorporating pentatonic activities into your piano lessons.