The pentatonic scale: Universal?

The pentatonic scale: Universal?

As many of you will know, I have a fascination about the musical brain. During my Master degree, I embarked on research about composition and auralisation (mental music) – research I am hoping to continue in the near future.

The video below is of Bobby McFerrin at the World Science Festival 2009, demonstrating the pentatonic scale as part of the event “Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus”. I am posting this not only because it fascinates me – but also because I’m aware that I’ve told many people about this video, and it would be great to finally point them in its direction!

 

The pentatonic scale has played quite a significant part in my previous works. Obviously, it is used extensively in Javanese music, which I spend a lot of my time playing. That, in turn, has highly influenced my music – not only the last piece I uploaded, for gamelan and string quartet, which features the gamelan in slendro (pentatonic) and begins with the strings mimicking this, but also in other works. In Surakartan Haze, for example (samples on my website/Soundcloud), begins with a haze of sound, from which a chord emerges, comprising entirely of notes from the pentatonic scale. In fact, the first 45 seconds or so, excluding the first haze, is purely pentatonic.

I’m still not entirely convinced as to whether the audience is defaulting to the pentatonic or not, as Bobby takes the lead on the second note of the scale. The introduction of the third note would be natural, as it is merely a tone from the second note – the same interval as would be present in a major scale. Similarly, the first note of the scale comes naturally from the second – so the appearance of the second note is the one that truly shows whether the scale is the one being defaulted to.

Nevertheless, the pentatonic scale crops up in so many musical cultures that it is clearly important, even if not necessarily universal. Are there any others…?

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