Marko Tomašević

Student, Highschool

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The explanation of why all people "feel" the pentatonic scale

In this video, Bobby McFerrin says he doesn`t understand why all of us "hear" and "know" the pentatonic scale basically from the moment we are born. The answer lies in the HARMONIC SERIES, a physical law,or a phenomenon if you wish.
To put it simply, when you hear a tone being played on the piano for eg.,you are actually hearing more than that one tone. You hear a whole series of tones(higher than the fundamental one),which is preordained and the same for every tone(actually musical instrument,the number of overtones is what gives an instrument its "sound colour") . Most people never notice(d) these higher tones because every next overtone is more quiet than the one lower.

So,what does the phenomenon of harmonic series got to do with the pentatonic scale? Well,that is simple. The pentatonic scale itself is part of the harmonic series! Penta indicates to the number five(5) - pentatonic scale consists of five overtones and is derived directly from the NATURAL PHYSICAL PHENOMENON OF THE HARMONIC SERIES. Maybe not consciously, but all people do feel and hear the harmonic series. That also explains the genesis of the pentatonic.

So,to summarize, when you hear a tone being played on a musical instrument, you are actually hearing a whole "HARMONIC SERIES" of higher tones. The pentatonic scale is directly derived from this PHYSICAL PHENOMENON, and all people can and do hear the harmonic series(although not all are conscious of it!). That is also the reason everyone in this video sings the same next tone even when Bobby doesn`t sing along.

For more research watch this beautiful and easy to understand video of famous conductor Leonard Bernstein explaining the topic:

The video is a bit long, but its enough to watch half of it. Enjoy!

  • Feb 12 2012: talking about memory..
    i'm from italy, i do not speak (or write) english so good. Not yet. But i want to say i think this fact of pentatonic scale (inside everybody's head) in also thanks of all the music composed in this past century,wich is based on that scale almost toatally. Our ear usually listen about a lot of genres made with the pentatonic, since we born and grew up. A lot of generations had became adults, or old, with the blues (first of all), with rock 'n roll, with country, and with a lot of pop and other genres comes by theese. The pentatonic scale is inside our DNA not only beacause it is in the harmonic spectre of sounds, but also, particullary talking about the equal temperament, because until some centuries ago, we listen only to a few kinds of music (with temperated scales and istruments), and now, our ears are not so much sensible to little variations of tone. Look for something about this..

    Today, when people listen (for example) to a third major, they prefer the one temperated (they say that is more pure and harmonic) but the rightest one is different (a little bit wane) and it seems wrong to a lot of people. this is a little proof of a great anthropological, psychoacoustical and cultural phenomenon.
    Sometimes, when someone try to hear to the indian music he doesn't understand: someone doesn't like it, someone says that is not musically (like occidental melodies), someother is simply relaxed by it. This happen because they use some scales different by ours, and their instruments are not tuned up with our method and with our intervals.
    sorry for my terrifying english, but i cannot shut up
    your words and this site is very interesting, thanks for listening
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    Feb 2 2012: Does that mean that music is best, when reserved solely to this scale? It is certainly most popular...
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      Feb 2 2012: Music written in pentatonic scale naturally soothes us, because the harmonic series is a natural thing, obviously has sth to do with the very essence of all around us. We are a part of this universe, so that is a very logical answer I think.

      However, try viewing music from a different perspective. You could judge music according to music theory (meaning that could show you some facts about it),but that is completely senseless,art in general cannot be "measured". How one experiences music is subjective, and I don`t believe anyone should tell anybody how "good" a certain piece of music is.

      You can only learn LISTENING, really listening to music,and learn about playing and instrument etc.
      Through open mind and a will to learn you will most certainly get to know more beautiful music.

      This is a jaw dropping TED video about listening to music:
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      Feb 2 2012: Forgot to mention, most of todays(if not all of) popular music is written in diatonic scale. That is an "ordinary" major or minor scale.
  • Feb 11 2012: A pentatonic minor scale is made up from 5 notes of its relative major (8 note) scale so essentially it is that scale without two of the notes. Most people have had some musical education. I'm talking grade school stuff here. They were taught the intervals of the major scale. The most common version that comes to mind is "doe ray me fa so la tee doe" so it's a pretty good bet this audience already has this in their engrained memory. If you pay close attention to the video you will see he feeds the audience 4 of the 5 notes of the scale and the sequence in which he feeds them is kind of crucial. The note he starts with is the root note of the relative major scale and follows it with the second note of that same scale (both of which are part of the 5 notes that make up the relative pentatonic minor scale) if they are given the first two notes of a major scale, most will follow it with the the third note if asked to tell someone what comes next so the fact that they come up with the third note on their own after he has them essentially go "doe ray doe ray doe ray" several times shouldn't really surprise anyone once they understand what he is doing. Since those first three notes are, interval wise, the same as the first three notes of a major scale, they are essentially working in a major scale to this point. He then sets it up as the pentatonic minor when HE introduces the the 4th note which skips over the 7th from the major scale (the 4th and 7th notes of the relative major are the two that are not part of the relative pentatonic minor) to the 6th note of the major which is also the root note of the relative pentatonic minor. So now they have those 4 notes engrained in their short term memory. He starts humming a tune in the relative minor scale over top of the notes the audience is hitting as he is jumping around on stage basically kind forcing them from aural memory to chose the last note of the pentatonic (the 5th note of the relative major scale).
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    Jan 31 2012: I made it to 15 minutes, but I enjoyed those 15 minutes and I got the idea you were pointing out from it.
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    Jan 31 2012: Thanks for sharing :) I'll be back in 1hr 45min after watching the vid :)