View Full Version : pentatonic scale

joan fitch
01-10-2002, 08:02 AM
I have been searching to try and understand music not just piping. I feel as if being able to understand how music is written and all those little secrets that great musicians understand will enhance my ability to point and express tunes. I have been seeking knowledge from a variety of pipers I consider to be experts in the hopes that someday this information will all come together in a meaningful way.

I recently came across an article that had been written by Cyrus McQueen. Cyrus was an intellectual man whom I admired greatly. He was a member of The St.Andrew's Pipe band and The Catamount Pipe band of Vermont. He was a scholar and professor. He passed away a few years ago but I think he would be flattered to have me share this article with you.


By Cyrus McQueen

Pipers know that their drones are tuned to A and their music is written in the key of A. Over the past decades the actual pitch of the chanter has increased closer to Bb in order to achieve a more brilliant sound. In addition, the two sharps in the key of A are usually not written on the staff notation since the music is all in the same key. Regardless of the pitch of the chanter, all pipers also notice that it sounds as if some tunes are major and some are minor in their flavor. It also sounds as if the pipers can play in different keys. How can this be if all the music is written in A?
The answer lies in the fact that the majority of pipe music uses the pentatonic scale. In America most of us are familiar with the pentatonic scale through our exposure to rhythm & blues and rock & roll music. The pentatonic scale is based upon five notes of the seven note scale or octave. The pattern used to determine a pentatonic scale is to (a) begin with the note or key you want to play, (b) include the next two notes, (c) skip the next note, and (d) include the next two notes.
The pentatonic scale starts on low A, and includes B, C, E, F, and high A. The notes emphasized in a tune written in this scale are A, C, and E. The other notes in the scale are not emphasized are called passing notes and are used to connect the melody notes together. When B and F are emphasized the tune will have a minor sound. The majority of pipe tunes are written using this scale.
The pentatonic G scale starts on low G, and includes A, B, D, E and high G, and high A. Tunes that emphasize G, B, or D will sound major while those emphasizing A, B, and E will sound minor. In fact, the minor scale will sound like an A minor scale. Thus, a tune that uses this scale can have both a major and minor flavor in it. Composers use this to provide a sense of key change to add a sense of excitement or changing dynamics to a tune.
The D pentatonic scale starts on A and includes B, D, E, F, and high A. These tunes sound different since above and below the key note D are emphasized. A minor flavor can be obtained by emphasizing E, F, and B or to start a phrase or tune on A and emphasize E and B.
If you have read this far you are wondering how this information can be of use to you as a piper. You may be surprised that knowledge of these pentatonic scales can help you to interpret, read, and phrase music more accurately than mindlessly reading the music. For instance, a tune
using the pentatonic A scale will emphasize low A, B, C, E, F and high A. The stress, dotted, or beginning phrases in a tune will fall on A, C, and E for a major flavor. A minor sounding tune would emphasize B and F. If you find yourself placing stress or beginning a musical phrase in a pentatonic major A tune on the passing notes B, F, or high G (which can be included in this scale, but they are just not emphasized) then you are probably not phrasing the music correctly and you are probably holding the passing notes too much time.
This may seem like a lot of work, but you will be rewarded in being able to play and interpret a tune in a more musical manner.
This will also help you to graduate from being just a piper to a musician.

Copied from The Drone vol.2 - no. 1, September 1997.