Five notes that changed the world

Rocking Minka to sleep, or trying to at least, I find myself making up silly lullabies. The scale I reach for instinctively is the major pentatonic. It's warm, soothing and has no jangling edges. It's perfect for the job.

For those unfamiliar with music theory, the major pentatonic scale, as its name suggests, has only five notes (as opposed to the usual seven of the Western system). If you have a keyboard to hand you can find it by playing all the white notes from C to C but missing out the fourth (F) and the seventh (B). Alternatively, just play the black notes, starting on F sharp.

The pentatonic scale is found the world over. It's particularly associated with the music of Africa and China but is found pretty much everywhere, not least within Scottish bagpipe tunes. If you play the same notes of the scale but starting on the fifth you get the minor pentatonic, the scale most often used on the Native American flute. There's a strong case for arguing that, whether major or minor, the pentatonic scale is a universal.

Lacking the two most colourful degrees of the ordinary major scale, or any of the crunchy blue notes, it's nigh on impossible to play a bum note, hence the pentatonic tends to be the first scale that would-be improvisers learn. But it's precisely that sunny lack of tension which has meant that up to now I've never really known what to do with it. Preferring my scales more piquant, I've always found it rather uninspiring.

That clearly demonstrates a paucity of imagination on my behalf for in India, where the scale is known as Raag Bhopali, masters like Hariprasad Chaurasia and Shivkumar Sharma can find endless permutations within those five notes.

Clearly the lessons of fatherhood are as many as they are unexpected.


  1. Aha! Another convert joins the fold. Love those pentatonics :-)

  2. Amazing! Thanks for sharing those viddys. I'm going to be humming to myself all day long now.

  3. Steiner education prescribes that children should only learn pentatonic tunes in the first years of learning. You may well be on to something in your instincts to resist anything more complex at this early stage! :-)

  4. Bobby McFerrin has got to be one of the world's shamans! When someone broke into my car right before this past Christmas and stole the only thing in it worth anything, 48-CDs in a portable carrier, I hope the five McFerrin CDs in it lifted their spirits as much as they had been mine for so many years!



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