Thursday, April 28, 2022

The Magic of Pentatonics

Adapted from my erstwhile Acousticx blog.

Music is a universal language. It cuts across national, cultural, and linguistic borders and unites us at a very basic level of our being. Don't take my word for it: Check out this amazing video from Bobby McFerrin, of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" fame.

Notice how he's hopping around the stage as if bouncing on giant piano keys. What's fascinating is that after Bobby spots the crowd the first two notes of his song, they get the third one all by themselves, without any prompting. They go on to do the same thing no matter how high or low Bobby goes on his imaginary keyboard. He says that no matter where in the world he does this, the audience just instinctively gets it.

How does it work? Well, the truth is that no one really knows. What Bobby's playing is a pentatonic major scale. What that means, in the simplest terms I can explain, is that where C Major has seven tones plus the octave -- CDEFGABC, straight up the white keys on the piano -- the pentatonic omits the fourth and the seventh of the scale. Thus: CDE (skip over F) GA (skip over B) C.

This does two things. First, it removes the tritones from the scale. Tritones are inherently dissonant. So if you remove the fourth and the seventh, all the remaining tones sound consonant with each other. No clashing tones remain.

Second, the pentatonic scale mimics the circle of fifths, which is a tool some musicians use to visualize the relationships between musical tones.

Just plain Bill, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Perfect fifths, which are what make up the circle, exist in intervals that are the most pleasing to the human ear of all tone combinations, with the exception of unison notes (say, the same C played together on two instruments) and octaves (say, two neighboring Cs played together on a piano). Instruments that are tuned in fifths, including most instruments of the violin and mandolin families, along with tenor guitars and tenor banjos, bring out these pleasing harmonics.

So if you travel clockwise from the top around the circle of fifths, you see that the first five notes are C, G, D, A, and E. Rearrange them, and you have CDEGA(C) -- our C Major pentatonic scale!

There's something about pentatonics that's hardwired into our brains. Archaeological evidence suggests that the first musical scales humans managed to work out were pentatonic. Ancient bone flutes, believed to be as much as 60,000 years old upon their discovery, were found to be tuned to pentatonic scales. Cultures all over the world worked out the same scales independently of each other. Moreover, pentatonics are at the heart of a lot of the music of the Orient, most notably in China, where the five notes of a pentatonic scale would have mimicked the five elements of Taoist philosophy. Looking back to the origins of the Western world, we find that pentatonics were associated with Pythagoras, who used the tones as the basis of his "music of the spheres," an idea that posited that musical tones emanating from celestial bodies could give us insights into the harmonic order of the universe.

It seems that music itself reveals an order to our existence, given that we all seem to innately know how to tap into this artform regardless of where we come from or what language we speak. It's likely that some caveman was grunting out a pentatonic scale somewhere in our distant past. Fast-forward thousands of years, and Bobby McFerrin's ability to "hack our brains" with pentatonics seems to show that those primitive human discoveries remain embedded deep within us.

Pretty cool stuff, if you ask me.

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