Why You Need To OWN The Pentatonic Scale

We've all heard how important it is to practice our scales and chords. But there is one thing for sure: the pentatonic scale is foundational to improvisation. You need to OWN the pentatonic scale.

While all the scales are important, sometimes it's hard to know where to start. There are major scales, and then there are minor scales - melodic minor, harmonic minor and normal minor scales, without even mentioning the dorian scales and a whole bunch of other patterns to learn.

But is it possible to perfect them all, all the time, forever? Does it feel like even if you could work all that into your practice schedule, you'd be spinning plates?


Is Your Practicing Like That?

Part of the problem with learning an instrument is you can't learn everything all at once. Sometimes, you've got to do the "wax on, wax off" stuff for a while. But when the questions go through your head about why you're doing wax on, wax off, and you have little or no idea about why you are doing what you're doing, it can get real discouraging.

Do you feel like your practicing is getting you closer to being able to play by ear in any comfortable manner? Do you feel like your practicing prepares you to improvise?

Practicing scales and arpeggios can be very effective in helping you learn your way around your instrument. It does so in a number of ways:

  • it gets you familiar with the fingerings of different notes;
  • it helps you hear the notes in relation to your finger positions, and visa-versa;
  • it gets you familiar with the "collections of sounds" that come from playing the different notes in a scale, and the kind of sounds those scales make - the kind of mood they convey.
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Scales are really "note collections" that express a certain mood or feel.

This is an important point that should not be missed. As an example, consider the sound you hear and the feeling that is created by playing a C major scale, as compared to the feeling that is created by playing the A minor scale. The mood you feel when hearing a major scale is different than the mood you feel when hearing a minor scale. But the interesting thing is, if you were to play a C major scale and an A (normal) minor scale, the notes in those two scales are exactly the same notes; the only difference is the order in which they are played.

The feel you get playing a major scale versus the minor scale is the emphasis on different notes because of the timing of them as you play.

When you play the C major scale, it sounds like it "resolves" as a major key because of the relative pitch of the notes you played in a balanced rhythm before you ended on the last note of the scale - the C.

When you play the A minor scale, it sounds like it "resolves," or "speaks" as a minor key because of the pitches of the notes that came before it, and with the rhythm the scale was played which emphasized certain notes on the beat before you landed on the A. 

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But the notes in both scales are the same collections of notes. It is the order and timing of them that puts an emphasis on certain notes that your ear "remembers" across the beats that gives the feel you end up with.

So what is the big deal about the pentatonic scale? Why is it so helpful to "own" the pentatonic scale?

In any scale pattern or in any song that is developed around a scale pattern (for instance, the major scale, the minor scale, the "blues" scale) there are certain notes in the scale that are played more often than others; there are certain notes that define the mood and the feel more clearly than others; there are certain notes that are "dominant" in defining the shape of the sound we hear in that major or minor key.

The pentatonic scale is actually a collection of notes that is pretty much the collection of dominant notes in the major, minor and blues scales all at once. So if you get fluent in playing the blues scales, you automatically get familiar with the dominant notes in the major, minor and blues scales of the key you're in.

For instance, the C pentatonic scale is made up of the notes C, D, E, G and A. And it just so happens that these are the dominant notes of the C major scale, and the A minor scale. So learning the C pentatonic scale helps you develop a "musical dialect" that concentrates on the dominant notes of both of those scales - at the same time!!

So how do you make the most of the pentatonic scale?

If you have a good sense of what you need to practice regarding scales, you should have a good idea of what to do with the pentatonic scale. In other words, go over the scale as you would your other scales - up and down, over the entire range of the instrument. Practice it in intervals of seconds and thirds, too.

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The idea is that whatever you would do with the regular major and minor scales to get comfortable with them on your horn, you should do with the pentatonic scale, too. You want to play it, hear it and feel it as it is - a small set of the notes you play in your regular scales. Familiarity with this scale will help you "fall back" to it when you're soloing. It will give you a set of notes in any key that are comfortable places to play from and to land when you're not sure where to go next.


  • Scales aren't really just about playing rungs. They're about developing a familiarity with "collections of notes."
  • major and minor scales convey different moods even though they use the same notes, because of the timing of which notes are played relative to the rhythm.
  • the pentatonic notes are "scales" or "note collections" that should become a part of your musical vocabulary, because they are so versatile.
  • The pentatonic scales are scales that help you develop musical expressions that are "safe" - playing on the pentatonic notes of a scale gives you a better chance of hitting notes that "fit" with the chords in the song or else at least allow you to "resolve" more easily to notes that fit well.
  • You should practice the pentatonic scales in all of the ways you would practice your other scales - up and down, changing directions randomly, doing intervals and the like.
  • SIGN UP with the link below for access to a FREE one-page exercise that can really help you maximize the benefits of the pentatonic scale. Just put your email in the spot below and then confirm your info in your email account. That way, you can access this free exercise.
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The pentatonic scale is a good way to cover a lot of bases with your practice routine.

Give it a whirl. And if you're interested, I'm working on an exercise series called the "pentatonic primer." It's designed to help you learn to develop some real chops on the pentatonics. Join the site if you want to be kept in the loop. It will be coming out soon!

Sign up here to be notified when the module is ready for launch! I would love to hear from you, too, by the way. I'm still learning the ropes of developing a web site but if you have questions or suggestions (or if you think you might want to contribute an occasional article or two in exchange for a link back to your site, drop me an email and explain what you're thinking so we can see what we can do that will help others who might want to develop their sax skills, too!



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