Oct 19, 2009
I love this video – it sums up so many things that are true and important about music to me.
But how does it work ? How do we know exactly what notes Bobby wants us to sing, even though the only clue we have is which way he’s jumping – and how far ?
Part of the answer is that he is singing, and prompting us to sing, in a pentatonic scale. In western music, we are very used to scales with 8 notes, chosen from 12 “equal temperament” semitones – like the white notes on a piano keyboard in C major, for example:
C, D, E, F, G, A, B…
Whereas by contrast, the pentatonic scale has only 5 notes. Still in C, these are:
C, D, E, G, A…
Another pentatonic scale is formed by the black notes on a piano keyboard. So what’s special about these 5 notes ? Lots of things ! They are:
The simplest, most fundamental musical “interval” is the unison – ie. singing or playing exactly the same note, or more usefully, an octave above or below it. Following swiftly on the unison’s heels though is the perfect 5th – C to G, for example. Fifths are everywhere in music, so much so that they form the basis of both mediaeval plainchant and the Heavy Metal “power-chord”.
In fact, the fifth comes so naturally to us that when asked to sing a particular note, many people will naturally sing the fifth, and not even realise they’re doing it. And this is the secret of the pentatonic scale – it’s built entirely from fifths.
Just start on C and move up by a fifth each time:
C, G, D, A, E
Shuffle them about a bit, and you have a pentatonic scale. But there’s more to it. Because of this reliance on fifths, pentatonics are
Why are do octaves and fifths sound so natural to our ears ? Because they are built into the fabric of sound itself.
All musical notes are based on vibrations – be it of a string, skin or a column of air. The pitch we hear is determined by the simplest form of those vibrations – the fundamental frequency. But these same strings, skins and air-columns can also vibrate in more complicated ways – anyone who has played with a skipping rope has found that as well as getting the whole rope to oscillate in one big loop, by waggling it harder you can get two, three or even four loops wobbling away.
These different “modes” of vibrations are known as “harmonics” of the fundamental frequency of vibration (the “whole-rope-wobble”), and every acoustic musical note naturally includes a healthy complement of these harmonics – in fact, the number and loudness of the harmonics in the sound of each instrument is what gives it an individial tone or timbre.
So, every musical note is made of a series of harmonics, but what does this have to do with the pentatonic scale ?
Well, the first harmonic of every musical note is an octave above the fundamental. The next is a perfect fifth. The next is a fourth, which corresponds to a note that’s a further octave above the fundamental. Sound familiar ?
These simple observations tell us why octaves and fifths sound so natural to use – they are literally built into all individual musical notes at the deepest level, and our ears actually spend a great deal of time “blending” fifths and octaves into single notes. No wonder many people can’t tell octaves and fifths apart !
Pentatonics are also:
3. Consonant (They sound great !)
The fact that the pentatonic scale is built from fifths means it contains almost no clashing or “disonant” notes. Put another way, you can play almost any notes of a pentatonic scale in almost any combination, and they’ll sound great together. The most uncomfortable combination you’re likely to hit on is a major second, but let’s face it, you need a little conflict to make things interesting, and seconds don’t sound nearly as ‘uncomfortable’ as semitones or the infamous diminished fifth or “tritone” (eg. C to F#), which used to sound so unnatural to western ears that it became known in history as the “devil’s interval” !
All this consonance in the pentatonic scale makes it a uniquely pleasing and satisfying key to sing and play in, as well as one that comes naturally to our ears. In fact, penatonics often play a leading role in both jazz improvisation and rock guitar solos, amongst many other genres.
And even the pentatonic’s notes themselves are more in tune than other more complex scales.
If you continue moving up through the harmonic series or cycle of fifths, you can eventually fill in all the notes and intervals of the familiar western diatonic scale – but there’s a catch. If you tune a piano to sound perfect in the key of C by strictly multiplying the frequencies as occurs in the harmonic series, it will sound terrible in most other keys.
This natural tuning system is known as “just” intonation, but because of the need to have pianos that can play in many different keys, western music actually uses “equal temperament” scales, meaning that many notes use a “compromise” tuning to make playing in multiple keys possible – so they are subtly out of tune with what we instinctively feel they should be.
The pentatonic scale doesn’t suffer from this problem.
Finally, the pentatonic scale is:
Pentatonic scales have been used almost everywhere at one time or another. According to Wikipedia:
Pentatonic scales are very common and are found all over the world, including Celtic folk music, Hungarian folk music, West African music, African-American spirituals, Jazz, American bluesmusic and rock music, Sami joik singing, children’s songs, the Greek traditional music and songs from Epirus, Northwest Greece and the music of Southern Albania, the tuning of the Ethiopian krar and the Indonesian gamelan, Philippine Kulintang, melodies of Korea, Japan, China, India and Vietnam (including the folk music of these countries), the Afro-Caribbean tradition, Polish highlanders from the Tatra Mountains, and Western Classical composers such as French composer Claude Debussy.The pentatonic scale is also used on the Great Highland Bagpipe.
The reason ? See points 1 to 3 !
So, is what Bobby does in the video clip so very clever after all ?
Because as well as the pentatonic scale, he’s using all kinds of musical & neurological training techniques. His movements give us cues; he uses only equal intervals to begin with; he uses repetition and reinforcement to help us remember what he’s teaching us and he later “trains” us to sing the notes he intends by subtly including higher and lower notes of the scale in the melody he sings before he actually “asks” us to sing them.
He’s a clever chap.
But at the end of the day, he holds all the cards. He’s using a truly universal musical language. After all, this is this is the scale that “Mary Had A Little Lamb” is written in, and that counts for a lot ; )
Music is natural, music is joyous, music is shared, music is universal, music is hard wired.
And I love it.
Ever used pentatonics in your music ?
PS. If you enjoyed this post, here are a few others you might like:
- How to make music from sand (And, why you would want to)
- The Seven Types Of Music Producer
- Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies – the Ultimate Music Production Tool ?
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Sound Engineering
- or, just check out the Index !