The Pentatonic Scale

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Classical Piano By: Tutor no longer registered
Subject: Piano » Classical Piano
Last updated: 02/02/2016
Tags: kodaly and the pentatonic scale, using the pentatonic scale in teaching methods

A look at how the piano player can use the Pentatonic Scale from the early stages of study, with particular reference to applying it: a) as the basis for a teaching method for young beginners and b) in extemporisation and improvisation.

The pentatonic scale is a scale with 5 notes and has no semitones. The best way to become familiar with the sound of the major pentatonic scale is to play all the five black notes ascending and descending. The minor pentatonic scale uses 1,3,4,5, and 7 of the natural minor scale, and the blues scale is based on the minor pentatonic and adds a flattened 5th. Exam boards like the ABRSM and Trinity Guildhall include natural minor and pentatonic scales in their syllabi.

Many beginners at the piano have played pieces based on the pentatonic scale. A number of these pieces have a Chinese connection in their title, which I personally find misleading. In all truth, Chinese music is characteristically pentatonic, but to sum it up with merely a 5-note association is, to say the least, limiting to both a description of the Chinese scale and to how people taught in the Western tradition should view this scale. Philip Ball observes in his book The Music Instinct: '...not only are supplementary tones added' (to the Chinese pentatonic scale, my brackets)'...but there are also several modes...' and:'...there are many regional variants of these scales with quite different structures, some of which are defined over more than a single octave span.' (The Music Instinct,p.81)

Whatever the title, some of these tunes found in a number of piano tutors are delightful. Such tutors include Fritz Emonts' 'European Piano Method' Bk1, Denes Agay's' Learning to Play Piano' Bk1, or John Schaum's 'Piano Course' BkB. Alan Bullard's series for Sight Reading includes pages based on the pentatonic scale: 'Joining the Dots' Bk 1. Entire repertoire books are devoted to using the pentatonic scale and modes, for example Mary Elizabeth Clark's 'Contempos' 1 & 2. Last but not least, Gillian Skottowe Earl bases the first chapters of her method book 'With Music in Mind' on the use of the pentatonic black notes.

To understand why the pentatonic scale is so conducive to enjoyable and creative piano playing for the young beginner, it is important to understand the crucial role singing plays in the individual's music education - indeed singing with a role prior to playing an instrument. Added to this is the importance of fostering listening skills, again, during the formative years of the musician. The Hungarian composer and paedagogist Zoltan Kodaly, whose teaching method is considered as one of the most effective by many educational establishments worldwide, wrote:

'Everyone who learns an instrument should sing first. Singing, independent of an instrument, is the real and profound school of music abilities. Before rearing instrumentalists, we must first rear musicians.' (Extract from With Music In Mind, Teacher's Guide, GS Earl, p. 13)

Kodaly championed the pentatonic scale as an invaluable singing tool for children, because he understood that a child finds it much easier to sing tunes without semitones, initially. Pentatonic tunes are catchy and easier to remember. Small wonder then, that folk tunes often contain pentatonic melodies (from simple to complex), and this was one of the reasons why Kodaly was passionate about the folk tunes of his country, a passion shared by his compatriot Bela Bartok. Kodaly and Bartok adapted Hungarian (also Slovak and Rumanian) folk songs, many of them pentatonic and very many for children, 'written in the spirit of folksongs but without their difficulties.' (Preface to Pentatonic Music Vol.2, Kodaly)

With the persuasive appeal of this methodology underlying her approach, Gillian Skottrowe Earl has written her tutor books for piano, a great method for young beginners (see above) Vols. 1&2. The lessons begin using Sol-fa* names of black notes, initially so and mi, and eventually do-re-mi-so-la. (I use G.S. Earl's spellings) Although playing the notes with either hand, with carefully selected fingering, begins almost immediately, a strong emphasis is placed on singing as well as playing. Fixed pitch is not established at the outset, rather the relationships between the notes is emphasised, making the pupil aware of intervals every step of the way. Hand signs are used for each tone. Once this pattern is established, a great variety of tunes are presented, tunes which the pupil thoroughly enjoys.

*Regarding pitch, the treatment of 'all major keys (since they are identical in interval) as one', with the common note names do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music)

In the earlier chapters of 'With Music In Mind' the tunes are printed in a format showing bars and time signatures, time values for notes, notes with stems up or down, and rests, but initially no stave. Therefore a secure sense of rhythm is developed. At regular stages pupil and teacher sing their tunes; moreover, intonation exercises are included, where one note is sustained ostinato fashion (sung or played) and a melody proceeds. Legato and staccato are introduced early on, and expression marks explained.

'Questions' require 'Answers': a short episode of two bars is played or sung giving the pupil the opportunity to come up with an answer, and these exercises, incorporated into each chapter, encourage extemporisation, which in later stages can be developed into improvisation. This approach is the very essence of participation and dialogue in its most stimulating sense of the words. The pupil is encouraged to respond,make eye contact, engage with the people around him/her, and indeed engage with the instrument and create more music. David Wright, in his book From Extemporisation to Improvisation, writes :' play with musical sounds as natural as breathing'; moreover, this kind of experience could form the basis for successful improvisation at a later stage, because' ...some forms...lead more directly to articulate expression and so on to improvisation and composition.' (From Extemporisation to Improvisation p.3) The skills inherent in improvisation are in a more natural form here: the use of repetition, creating a new theme, trying sequence, where themes are repeated at a different pitch, and concluding a passage of music. And because the pentatonic combination of notes does not have the tonic/leading note relationship, this 'reduces the tonic pull' (David Wright,p.17) and pupils feel freer to let a melody follow its course. Added to which, many pupils find it easier initially to play on the black keys, so co-ordination gives more confidence. Later on, when the piano player uses more extended hand positions and white notes, further use of the pentatonic scale will become more varied.

Underlying all this is a tailoring to the needs of the musical ear; so for example the large hand symbols for each tone are given more importance than the stave, which we have seen does not appear straight away. George Odam writes: ' is best to do something active in order to internalise the (musical) experience' (my brackets) p.24, and: 'The starting point and the true end of music education must always be the development of the ear.'( The Sounding Symbol) p.30

Once lessons are underway it would be surprising to find pupils who don't turn up for lessons with a longing to sing, locate the notes they are using, and get started on a tune they have learnt or recently composed; all this with the use of comfortable fingering (with increasing ease) and a willingness to find a place for the notes they are learning on the stave, when they are ready for it. The structured plan of this method gives the teacher the opportunity to develop important areas of learning as they go along; thus posture and finger shape, for example, are adopted with relaxation and willingness because the pupil is in a receptive frame of mind and contributing actively to the lesson. Learning interesting songs with dynamics, and creating their own songs, will develop sensitivity to a varied repertoire. Of course the teacher will want to be giving piano pupils a complete, multi faceted  training:the development of good technique, how much and how well to practise, are crucial, but they are not topics that belong in this article.



Denes Agay Learning to Play Piano Bk 1 Wise Publications 2011

Philip Ball The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It The Bodley Head 2011

Alan Bullard Joining the Dots: A Fresh APProach to Piano Sight Reading, 1 ABRSM 2010

Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, The OUP 1972

Mary E Clark Contempos 1&2 Myklas Music Press, 1972, 1974

Fritz Emonts The European Piano Method, 1 Schott 1992

G. Skottrowe Earl With Music in Mind:Kodaly Principles of Music Education Applied to Beginners at the Piano, 1&2

The Teacher's Guide Rosamund Publications Cornwall 1994

George Odam The Sounding Symbol: Music Education in Action Stanley Thornes 1995

John W. Schaum Piano Course Bk B Belwin 1945

David Wright From Extemporisation to Improvisation: A Practical Guide Trinity College London 1997


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