Pentatonic Scale: Hardwired?

Laurel, are you reading? How ’bout you, Tim? (Banks, that is, but Horn can horn in if he wants to. Sorry, really bad pun.) All you other musician types (Bruce, Morris, David, et al), I want your input too.

Take a look at this video (and read the original poster’s thoughts on the subject too). Then come back here and let’s talk.

I’ve seen Bobby McFerrin in concert before. (At the Alabama Theatre in Birmingham, with my cousin Lela, who has yet to comment on this blog!) He did this very experiment with us that night, and everyone instinctively responded as this audience does, with a pentatonic scale.

Pentatonic folk tunes about all over the world. Some of our best-known and best-loved hymn tunes fall into this category, such as NEW BRITAIN (“Amazing Grace”) from Scotland by way of Appalachia, WAYFARING STRANGER, also from Appalachia, JESUS LOVES ME, based on a Chinese folk tune, etc.

Shaped-note singing enthusiasts will immediately think of MORNING TRUMPET, BEACH SPRING, and many others such as “Hark I Hear the Harps Eternal.” The Celtic tune SLANE (“Be Thou My Vision”) is one of the most deeply-loved hymn tunes we have: also pentatonic.

So, what is it about the pentatonic scale. Why does it resonate so deeply with us? (I’m not using those words figuratively, either.)


About revjatb

I am a father of six who is trying to do his best! My interests are varied. I have one blog, KnowTea, that is primarily focused on liturgy and worship and another one, Bengtsson's Baking, that is about, well, baking! I hope you enjoy both of them, and if you have any questions, please contact me!
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6 Responses to Pentatonic Scale: Hardwired?

  1. cap'n says:

    Attractively gap-toothed melodies? Whole steps and minor thirds easier to sing? Kodály was onto something (scientific), or were all those Rumanian schoolchildren “just” learning by ear?

    You do know that melodies are encoded in tartan, don’t you? (That might be Ogham, instead.) Fraser Red is singing something!

  2. Tim T says:

    I blame the Pentatons

  3. cap'n says:

    Some time ago in BBC Music Magazine, there was an article about “tone deafness.” Apparently, musical hearing is linked to language development, and all world languages share some degree of reliance upon inflection (rising or falling of the speaking voice) to signal ends of thoughts, meaning of words, emotions, etc. The normal range of inflection is about a half octave, with the minor third most common.

    So, that minimum amount of pitch recognition seems to be universally hardwired. Most people have capacity beyond that; but, a few really musically untalented people have severly compromised ability to hear musical intervals beyond the normal speaking range.

    Perhaps the pentatonic scale appeals to the common denominator of our hardwired listening ability more readily than the diatonic scale?

    I think McFerrin’s audience sort of knew where he was going, jumping around on imaginary piano black keys. But, to have everybody singing pretty well on pitch was remarkable.

  4. RevJATB says:

    I remember Dr. Tibbs talking about all the stret vendors in New Orleans when he was a child, calling out “Strawberries!” “Peaches!” etc. Always a minor third. And our moms always called us home in the evening with the same minor third.

  5. Tim Horn says:

    I find this fascinating because I know absolutely nothing about music, but wish I did. I love music more than most anything, but all this talk of scales and chords is like learning Chinese to me. I wish I could discern notes and chords, etc.

  6. cap'n says:

    JATB climbed higher on Mount Parnassus than I did, going to music graduate school et al. He could probably lose ME talking, oh, something like “Schenkerian” (a kind of musical analysis where you crunch page after page of black dots down to about three notes explaining why Beethoven and the Beatles are geniuses).

    But I play the piano better than JATB does. 🙂

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