Learn how to use Pentatonic & Blues Scales to effortlessly create melodies & solos just like the pros!
Pentatonic Scales are simple and versatile groups of notes used to create melodies in a key without having to worry much about accidentally creating uncomfortable dissonance over chord progressions.
They are commonly used in rock, country, and pop music because of how pleasant and stable they sound to a listener’s ears.
For you as a musician, these scales unlock an easy to remember way for playing notes that safely sound ‘good’ when writing music, soloing, or improvising.
There’s a Major Pentatonic Scale, which is based on the Major Scale.
And, a Minor Pentatonic Scale, which is based on the Natural Minor scale.
Unlike their parent scales that have 7 notes in an octave, Pentatonic Scales have 5 notes.
The Major Pentatonic Scale is based on the 7-note Major Scale, but excludes the 4th & 7th intervals. Those two intervals create tension in the scale, also form a dissonant tritone interval when played together.
The character of the Major Pentatonic Scale is that every interval sounds pleasant and consonant. So, it’s important to avoid the notes that are the opposite of that.
Looking at the C Major Scale, notice that the 4th interval (the ‘F’ note) and the 7th interval (the ‘B’ note) create half-steps in the scale. These half-steps are a source of tension because they want to pull toward other notes in the scale. For example, the ‘B’ in a C Major Scale is a leading tone that wants to resolve to ‘C’.
By removing the 4th & 7th, you create a 5 note Major Pentatonic Scale without that tension. Every interval is separated by at least a whole step, so any note in the scale will sound stable.
Here’s how to create the C Major Pentatonic Scale. Using this approach, you can follow a formula for creating a Major Pentatonic Scale from any Major Scale.
First, start with the C Major Scale.
Then, to create the C Major Pentatonic Scale, we’re going to select 5 of these 7 notes. Exclude the 4th & 7th intervals of the C Major Scale.
Which, for C Major Pentatonic gives you the notes C – D – E – G – A.
You can create a 5 note Major Pentatonic Scale from any Major Scale with the following intervals:
Major Pentatonic Scale: 1 – 2 – 3 – 5 – 6
Pentatonic scales sound good over many types of chords and progressions. Here are a few common ways to use them in your playing.
*That’s right, you can play Pentatonic Scales over different Modes of the Major Scale! Modes that have a ‘Major’ character such as the Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian modes have the intervals of the Major Pentatonic Scale within them.
These Modes get their unique modal intervals elsewhere – such as the #4 in Lydian and the ♭7 in Mixolydian. Which, you avoid entirely with the Major Pentatonic Scale since you exclude the 4th & 7th intervals from the start.
This works for ‘Minor’ character Modes too such as Phrygian, Dorian, & Aeolian where you can use the Minor Pentatonic Scale.
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To create a Minor Pentatonic Scale, you’re going to use the Natural Minor Scale as your starting point, and exclude the 2nd & 6thintervals.
In the Minor Scale, the 2nd & 6th are the intervals that create tension. Together, they also form a dissonant tritone.
Looking at the C Minor Scale, you can see that it’s the 2nd interval (the ‘D’ note) and the 6th interval (the ‘A♭’ note) that create half-step intervals and the source of tension.
By excluding the 2nd & 6th intervals from the Minor Scale, you create a 5 note Minor Pentatonic Scale where every interval sounds stable.
To uncover the formula for creating Minor Pentatonic scales, let’s use the C Minor Pentatonic as an example.
First, start with the C Natural Minor Scale.
To create the C Minor Pentatonic Scale, there are again two intervals that create tension to remove. But, they’re not the same intervals as the Major Pentatonic. This time it’s the 2nd & ♭6th intervals that are excluded.
For C Minor Pentatonic, this gives you the notes C – E♭ – F – G – B♭.
You can create a Minor Pentatonic scale from any Natural Minor Scale with this formula:
Minor Pentatonic Scale: 1 – ♭3 – 4 – 5 – ♭7
There is another way to create Minor Pentatonic Scales, which is by using the Major Scale.
Since Natural Minor Scales can be constructed by staring on the 6th degree of a Major Scale, we can do the same thing here to create a Minor Pentatonic Scale from a Major Scale.
To start, let’s take the C Major Scale. Using the formula we learned earlier we’ll grey out the notes that will be excluded when you build the Major Pentatonic Scale. C – D – E – G – A remains, and that’s C Major Pentatonic.
The 6th interval in C Major is A, which is the root of its Relative Minor Scale. By knowing this, you can create the A Natural Minor Scale using the same notes, but in a different order.
Here are the intervals relative to the new root note, ‘A.’
We’ve greyed out the same notes (The ‘B’ and ‘F’) from the Major Pentatonic, which then gives us the A Minor Pentatonic Scale with the notes A – C – D – E – G.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
The same notes (‘B’ & ‘F’ in this case) are excluded from both the C Major Pentatonic Scale and A Minor Pentatonic Scale, but the intervals are different.
The relative minor has different intervals, but the same notes. You’re just starting at a different root.
The 6th interval of a Major Scale (in the case of C Major, ‘A’) is also the last note of the Major Pentatonic Scale:
C Major Pentatonic Scale: C – D – E – G – A
And, if you build a Minor Pentatonic Scale starting from that 6th interval, you get:
A Minor Pentatonic Scale: A – C – D – E – G
Which, if you look closely is just the Relative Major Pentatonic Scale re-arranged to start on the last note.
This means that if you know all your Major Pentatonic Scales then you also know their Relative Minor Pentatonic Scales! You just have to re-arrange the scale to start on the last note.
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The Minor Pentatonic Scale sounds good with minor keys and minor chords, or with keys & modes that share the same notes. Here are a few ways to use it.
For a ‘bluesy’ sound you can also play Minor Pentatonic Scales in Major Keys with the same root, as well as over Major Chords & Dominant Chords. For example, you can play A Minor Pentatonic over chords in the key of A Major.
In this case, the ♭3rd interval from the Minor Pentatonic Scale will sound dissonant, but this is very deliberate with blues music.
Especially when moving chromatically from the 2nd to the ♭3rd, or the ♭3rd to the 3rd, blues musicians will bend or slide between these chromatic intervals for maximum emotional impact.
That’s not the only way to get a blues sound. Here’s where the Blues Scale comes in.
Blues Scales are a variation of Pentatonic Scales with an extra note to intentionally add tension & dissonance.
As the name suggests, blues scales are part of the foundation of blues music, but you can use this scale in most genres, especially jazz and rock.
When you play a Minor Pentatonic Scale over a Major Chord (or Progression), you create the sound of the blues, with the ♭3rd and 3rdintervals deliberately creating dissonance.
The Blues Scale defines this a bit further, where you add that dissonant interval to a Pentatonic Scale, which creates a 6 note scale with an added chromatic note.
There is a Major Blues Scale, based on the Major Pentatonic Scale.
And, a Minor Blues Scale, based on the Minor Pentatonic Scale.
To create a Major Blues Scale, take a Major Pentatonic Scale and add a ♭3rd interval. This adds 2 half-step intervals for an intentionally dissonant ‘blues’ sound. To start, here’s what the C Major Pentatonic Scale looks like:
With a C Major Blues Scale, the ♭3rd interval adds half-step intervals between the 2nd, ♭3rd, & 3rd.
The formula for a Major Blues Scale is similar to the Major Pentatonic, except with an added ♭3rd interval.
Major Blues Scale: 1 – 2 – ♭3 – 3 – 5 – 6
Here are all Major Blues scales for reference. Following music theory ‘rules,’ the ♭3rd interval can create complex note names (double-flats!). In those cases, the common enharmonic note (same pitch) is included in parentheses.
For example, the G♭ Major Blues scale adds B♭♭ as the ♭3rd interval, but enharmonically that’s the same pitch as A.
You can use the Major Blues Scales in the same situations where you would use the Major Pentatonic Scale.
The main difference is that you’ll want to emphasize the added note and chromatic intervals it creates to get the unique character of the Blues Scale to stand out.
In Major Blues, the chromatic notes are the 2nd, ♭3rd, and 3rd intervals of the scale.
Try to emphasize these notes to add an emotional ‘bluesy’ sound to your playing. For example, you can bend or slide up or down between these intervals to add tension.
To create a Minor Blues Scale, take a Minor Pentatonic Scale, and add a ♭5th interval. The ‘flat five’ or ‘diminished fifth’ is a very dissonant and dark sounding interval, but it is also a perfect fit for the blues.
For example, here’s the C Minor Pentatonic Scale.
For a C Minor Blues Scale, the ♭5th interval adds half-step intervals between the 4th, ♭5th, and 5th.
The formula for the Minor Blues Scale is almost the same as the Minor Pentatonic, just with an added ♭5th interval.
Minor Blues Scale: 1 – ♭3 – 4 – ♭5 – 5 – ♭7
Why the ♭5th?
Remember how the Major Scale and Minor Scale relate to each other. The same relationship applies to the Major Blues and Minor Blues scales.
For example, the C Major Blues Scale contains the 6 notes below. We’ll highlight the ♭3rd note that’s added to turn a Major Pentatonic Scale into a Major Blues Scale:
Similar to how you can create Relative Minor Pentatonic Scales from the last note of a Major Pentatonic Scale, we can do the same with Major and Minor Blues Scales.
To create the Relative Minor Blues Scale here, we’re going to start the scale on the last note of the Major Blues Scale. In this case, it’s A.
While the Minor Blues scale has different intervals, it has the same notes as its relative Major Blues Scale, just starting at a different root.
Here are all the Minor Blues scales for reference. Like the Major Blues, the added ♭5th interval may result in double-flats. The common enharmonic note is included in parenthesis.
For example, the E♭ Minor Blues Scale adds B♭♭ as the ♭5th interval, but enharmonically that’s the same pitch as A.
You can build Relative Minor Blues Scales from a Major Blues Scale by starting at the last note of the Major Blues.
Minor Blues Scales can be used in the same situations when you would use the Minor Pentatonic Scale but want to deliberately add tension.
To get a strong Minor Blues sound, emphasize the chromatic notes in the scale – the 4th, ♭5th, and 5th intervals.
*A unique characteristic of the blues is that while many pieces are in a Major Key, the melodies and solos will use the Minor Blues Scale for extra dissonance and focusing that ‘bluesy’ sound.
**If you really want to feel the blues, play the Minor Blues scale over a 12 Bar Blues Progression of Dominant Chords! There’s dissonance everywhere, but it will help you make a strong emotional impact on your music.