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The Power Of The Pentatonic

By Edited Apr 11, 2014 3 6

Music's Emotional Roller Coaster

We know music has healing qualities. It also has the ability to bring us moments of sheer joy and at the opposite end of the spectrum, the ability to dissolve us in to a teary dribbling mess. Music has seemingly magical powers to connect emotionally with people much more than words alone can seem to do. There isn't really anything voodooish or magical about it. The scientific explanation is that music resonates with us. It throws out to us frequencies and vibrations that effect our own bodily frequencies and vibrations, thus syncing us with what we are hearing. Fast and loud will hype us up, slow and soft will quieten us down, add to that some words and we are now connecting on a couple of different spectrums at the one time. It is a really powerful tool that we don't use enough. The power of music to heal ourselves is something we can all easily access and use. There is one particularly interesting scale (series of notes within an octave) appearing in music that we listen to though, that seems to have woven itself almost subconsciously into our brain. Let's delve into some interesting facts about the pentatonic scale.

*Penta coming from the greek word pente meaning five and tonic meaning tone - The Pentatonic Scale, is a scale consisting of five notes within one octave.

Five Perfectly Unusual Notes

Anyone who had access to a piano or keyboard as a young child will probably remember the magical black notes. It didn't seem to matter which one you played, in or out of sequence, all over the piano...it would still actually sound like real music...not a bum note to be heard, as long as you stuck to the black notes only, it somehow produced a song. These black notes are the pentatonic scale.

1 Minor Pentatonic Eb-Gb-Ab-Bb-Db-Eb    
2 Major Pentatonic Gb-Ab-Bb-Db-Eb-Gb    
3 Egyptian, Suspended Ab-Bb-Db-Eb-Gb-Ab    
4 Blues Minor, Man Gong Bb-Db-Eb-Gb-Ab-Bb    
5 Blues Major, Ritusen Db-Eb-Gb-Ab-Bb-Db

For some of you the name Bobby McFerrin, is instantly and only associated with his huge hit song from 1988 - Don't Worry, Be Happy. In this song Bobby sang every part, no instruments  used other than his own voice, just a totally overdubbed acapella. There is actually much more to Bobby McFerrin than most people actually realise, he is highly respected within the music industry as somewhat of a musical and vocal genius. Capable of performing multiphonic singing and often performing both the main melody and the accompanying parts of his songs together at the same time (un-dubbed), Bobby is a real voice guru. It's really interesting to see the power of the pentatonic scale which is highlighted in the following video by Bobby at the World Science Festival. I challenge you to watch and see if you can join in and sing along...I bet you can.

Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates The Pentatonics Power

Breaking Down What Just Happened

black notes
Now in this video, which is held at the World Science Festival, we can draw the assumption that the audience are not musicians and are probably predominantly scientists. We can also take into consideration, that coming from a western society, most of them are much more familiar with the normal seven noted major and minor scales, than we are with the somewhat Asian sounding five noted pentatonic scale. As a musician, I can tell you that the first two notes that Bobby teaches to the audience are the primary doe 1st note and re 2nd note and then the audience guesses mi the third note...Even this is not particularly that hard for most of us because generally we all know how to sing the seven notes of a major scale (assuming we have all watched the movie "The Sound Of Music"). He then drops in a lower la note and improvises over the top of what the audience sings using the notes of the pentatonic scale. Now this could be where he apparently taps into the audiences subconscious brain by singing the pentatonic notes, maybe it kind of suggests to them where they are going ... or is it really a case that everyone all over the world just instinctively knows what a pentatonic scale sounds like? Whatever happens here in this remarkable video, it is kind of magical. Whether it is Bobby McFerrin's amazing teaching ability or the power of the pentatonic, it is very impressive... because even a great teacher can't account for the slightly different tones and over tones heard on many different instruments and in songs within different cultures all over the world. There is definitely some kind of universal understanding going on here.

Pentatonic Healing

Five Tones
This amazing scale has been used for centuries as a tool for healing. Some sound therapists believe that our brain has the ability to compartmentalize tones, meaning that if we hear an A being played and the frequency changes a few times per second, our brain will instinctively round it up or down to the next tone. This means that many scales can be effectively used in healing with music, but it still seems that the pentatonic is thought of as one of the most effective scales to use for just relaxing into a sound. This is because there is a strong sense of no home key, no final note or ending to what is being heard, allowing the listener to just float around within the scale, within music. 

Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say : It is thought that the pentatonic scale represents an early stage of musical development, because it is found, in different forms, in most of the world’s music. Pentatonic scales may have been used in ancient times to tune the Greek kithara (lyre), native American Indians use this scale as do some early Gregorian chants.

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Chinese Beliefs In The Number Five

Tuning Fork
In Chinese music the pentatonic scale is quite prominent, so it comes as no surprise that is often used in Chinese healing techniques. Daoist (Taoist) Priests use tuning forks that are pitched to this scale, striking the tuning forks over different parts of the body, using the tones and vibrations to heal the corresponding problems. Daoism (Taoism) has the belief that FIVE dynamic qualities or energies are found in all natural phenomena. In Chinese this is known as Wu Xing. Here is a list of the elements, their Chinese translations and how they work to generate and to overcome.
  • Wood   ~    mu    ~     Wood feeds Fire                                    ~ Wood parts Earth
  • Fire      ~   huo    ~      Fire creates Earth (ash)                       ~ Fire melts Metal
  • Earth   ~  tu        ~       Earth bears Metal                                ~  Earth absorbs Water
  • Metal   ~  Jin      ~       Metal Carries Water  (bucket or tap)  ~ Metal chops Wood
  • Water  ~  Shui    ~       Water nourishes Wood                        ~ Water quenches Fire

In the past and still now (to a lesser degree), Chinese people used Wu Xing in all different aspects of daily life. Feng Shui, astrology, traditional Chinese medicine, music, art, military strategy, and martial arts including tai chi (taijiquan) are all based on or utilise Wu Xing. These five elements are believed to control the changes of the universe. In China there are the Five Virtues of Confucianism, Five Government Ministers, Five Sacred Mountains of Taoism, the Five Basic Colors and of course the Five Musical Notes of the pentatonic scale. These ancient beliefs all come from the Daoism book of changes, known as the I Ching.


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Close Encounters Of A Pentatonic Kind

There you have it, the power of the number five and the pentatonic scale. It certainly goes back a long way. What are your opinions? Could you sing along with the audience in the video, not realising that you even knew what a pentatonic scale was? Oh yeah, I also forgot to mention (for you Sci-Fi movie buffs) that the famous Spielberg classic - Close Encounters Of The Third Kind...the aliens are communicating to us by repeatedly playing an A flat major pentatonic scale ...Is your lucky number now five?



May 19, 2013 6:02pm
Great article, very informative
May 19, 2013 8:02pm
Thanks MrRooibos, much appreciated. Glad you liked it!
May 20, 2013 2:39am
Fascinating article about the science of music!
May 20, 2013 3:59am
chbamey, thanks so much. I am proud of this article because it is an area that is close to my heart, having studied music at the Conservatorium of W.A. I was a little surprised to see it featured as it was quite a self indulgent write, that I find fascinating, but maybe many others may not. So once again...thank-you :-)
May 20, 2013 10:36am
This article is so cool. I love the Pentatonic scale, especially the minor. You can do so much with those 5 notes.
May 20, 2013 4:51pm
Yeah I also really love the minor pentatonic. Thanks brlamc, I'm happy you enjoyed the article!
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  1. "Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates The Power Of The Pentatonic Scale." Physics Forum. 17/04/2013 <Web >
  2. "Bobby McFerrin." Wikipedia. 17/04/2013 <Web >
  3. "Don't Worry, Be Happy." Wikipedia. 17/04/2013 <Web >
  4. "The Pentatonic Scale." The Beearth Institute. 17/04/2013 <Web >
  5. "Components of Healing Music: Modes, Whole-tone and Pentatonic Scales." Healing Music Enterprises. 17/04/2013 <Web >
  6. "Pentatonic Scale." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 17/04/2013 <Web >
  7. "Wu Xing." New World Encyclopedia. 17/04/2013 <Web >
  8. "Pentatonic Scale." Wikipedia. 17/04/2013 <Web >

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