Pentatonic: Definition, Scales & Songs

Instructor: Erika Svanoe

Erika has taught several college music courses and has a doctorate of musical arts in conducting.

In this lesson, you will learn about pentatonic scales and how to build them. You will also learn the difference between major pentatonic and minor pentatonic scales, as well as what kind of music uses pentatonic scales.


Pentatonic scales are scales that are built out of five different notes. You can remember this by thinking of the prefix 'penta', which means 'five'. It is used in the word 'pentagon' to mean a shape with five sides. So, a pentatonic scale is built from five notes.

A pentatonic scale is built with five notes, just like a pentagon is built with five sides.

Pentatonic scales are used in the music of many cultures around the world. They are found in the ancient music of the American Indians, Scots, and Celts, as well as in regions in Africa, Polynesia, and Asia. They can be heard today in popular music, rock, blues, and jazz. The song 'Amazing Grace' uses a pentatonic scale.

Pentatonic Scales

Pentatonic scales are made up of five notes with specific intervals between them. Intervals are the various distances between notes. You can build a pentatonic scale in a number of different ways. One of the easiest ways to play a pentatonic scale on the piano is to just play the black keys. If you play the notes order from low to high, this would be a pentatonic scale. If you play the black keys in any order you want, the music would use the notes of the pentatonic scale.

The black keys of a piano naturally form the correct notes to play a pentatonic scale.

There are two main types of pentatonic scale. They are major pentatonic and minor pentatonic. Major pentatonic would be typically used in pieces with major harmonies and can be built from a major scale. Minor pentatonic would be used with minor harmonies and can be built from the natural minor scale. Let's take a closer look at each kind of pentatonic scale.

Major Pentatonic

A major pentatonic scale is built from five different notes, with the bottom pitch repeated at the top of the scale. You can build a major pentatonic scale by taking a major scale and removing the 4th and 7th scale degrees.

A C-major scale compared to a C-major pentatonic scale.
A C-major scale compared to a C-major pentatonic scale.

Notice how the major pentatonic scale has five different pitches, but then the bottom pitch 'C' is repeated at the top of the scale. Another way you can build a major pentatonic scale by measuring the intervals or the distance between the notes. Pentatonic scales are built from two different intervals: major 2nds (M2) and minor 3rds (m3). Major 2nds have two half-steps between each note, and minor 3rds have three half-steps between each note. For a major pentatonic scale, the intervals would appear in this order: M2-M2-m3-M2-m3.

You can build a major pentatonic scale using major 2nds and minor 3rds.

Minor Pentatonic

A minor pentatonic scale can be built by removing the 2nd and 6th scale degrees from a natural minor scale.

An A natural minor scale compared to an A-minor pentatonic scale.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register for a free trial

Are you a student or a teacher?
I am a teacher
What is your educational goal?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 10 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 95 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 2,000 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it free for 5 days!
Create An Account