Issue 20: Composing using Pentatonic Scales

Pentatonic scales are used in music all over the world. They are scales that use just five (penta) different notes (tones). The scale that sounds most familiar uses the first, second, third, fifth and sixth notes of the scale;

do, re, mi, soh and lah

Pentatonic tunes occur all through British Folk Music – for example, try picking out the tune of “Over the Sea to Skye” using just the black notes on a piano or keyboard.

If you are using chime bars, or glockenspiels, choose one of the following groups;

C D E G A, or F G A C D, or G A B D E

(The black notes on the keyboard are F#, G#, A# C# and D#, which is similar to the second group. Music specialists will now insist that I add that they are also called Gflat, Aflat, Bflat, Dflat and Eflat, which is similar to the third group. I’m not sure if I should really enter these murky waters, and anyway you don’t need to know all this in order to be able to play tunes on them!)

On a descant recorder the notes would be D E G A B, which are the same letters as the last set of chime bar notes. As a general rule, you can use these notes in any order, so long as they all come from the same group – if you have a mixed selection of shorter and longer chime bars, experiment to see what is the best way to group them.

The notes high-lighted in bold can be used as an accompaniment to the melody.

The beauty of pentatonic scales is that you can play the notes in any order, and in any rhythm, and always end up with a sort of melody. It is also fairly easy to devise a simple system of notation to record your composition.

So, here we go; I’ll use the set of notes C D E G A.

First we need some words. As Chinese New Year is coming up, I’ll use that as my inspiration;

Hap-       py,         HappyhappyChin-ese New  Year

The spacing between the syllables gives an indication of how I want to say the words; And then I’ll choose letters for the different syllables; and again, the spacing between the letters gives some indication of how quickly or slowly to play the notes.

G               E          AAAAD  E   G         E

So, by writing the letters under the syllables, and spacing out the syllables, you can notate your composition. All I need is for someone to pay a steady beat using C and G, and maybe tap a cymbal with a soft beater on each of the words “Chinese New Year” and I have the beginnings of a Chinese New Year piece.

It really is that simple – please have a go!

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