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How to unlock your student's creativity with the pentatonic scale

Updated: May 6

Staring at a blank score is intimidating. Add 88 piano keys and a teacher to that scenario and your student may come down with a shocking case of stage fright!

99% of my students have faced composer's block at least once. This is particularly true for students 10 years old and up. By this time, they've realized that perfection is what their schools are looking for and music lessons might fall into that category too.

How do we help them change that look of panic into astonishment and joy? Enter the pentatonic scale. I'll admit, I don't love notating music in G-flat major, but in this case, it's worth it! Pentatonic scales are built by removing the semitones of a major or natural minor scale. For the C-major scale, remove F and B. The pitches you're left with create an ethereal sound that's difficult to mess up. Lucky for us, the black keys create a perfect G-flat pentatonic scale!

It's no surprise that this scale is prevalent in folk music across the globe. This video is a fascinating look at the use of this scale in Malian music. FYI the video includes the sheet music, so you can track the sound as this master guitarist plays. Watch the video here:

I live in Toronto, so my studio is culturally diverse, which I LOVE. When I teach students this scale, many of their parents comment that it reminds them of folk music from "back home", wherever that may be. I currently have students from three continents and eight countries, so that's a lot of ground covered!

Now that we've had a chance to review the pentatonic scale, let's see how you can use it in a lesson by pretending that we're students again. Your teacher, whom you admire and respect, has just asked you to write a beautiful piece of music. You think it has to be worthy of a grand stage, maybe Carnegie Hall, and you have no idea what to do. You don't want to let your teacher down and your parents keep saying they don't want to waste money on lessons if you never practice. So you put your fingers on the keys, stare at the blank page in front of you and freeze. Sound familiar?

I think it's important to put ourselves in our student's shoes on a weekly basis. Learning an instrument is hard work and adults often hinder more than help those efforts. Composing in particular is scary because we live in a post Beethoven/Mozart world where composers are held on a pedestal so high they're practically aliens. But really, they started composing when they were toddlers or preschoolers, not because they were musical geniuses, but because it was part of their basic music education. Even using those two masters as examples, their compositional styles were vastly different; Mozart scribbling music on the page at a furious pace and Beethoven labouring over single phrases for years! Let's relieve all of that pressure and get back into our lesson with a more relaxed approach.

Imagine playing a game with your teacher. A call and answer game on the black keys. Your teacher plays a few notes and asks you to "say" something in reply. You're skeptical at first, but then you realize that no matter what you play, it sounds good. You're a composing genius! Your teacher quietly backs off making suggestions and you throw your left hand into the mix. Even your harmony sounds good. What is this magic?! It's the pentatonic scale and you're now confidently improvising and ready to start composing. This took 2 minutes to discover! (And your teacher is thanking their lucky stars that they have another composer in the studio.)

A feature of this magical scale is chameleon mood. Jazz, blues, heavy metal, John Dowland and 3,000 year old music from Syria; they all use the pentatonic scale. Some songwriters use it to sound comforting, others to tell the story of pixies and fairies in the Northern isles. I don't think there is a place on the planet where you can avoid it! Seasoned guitarists joke about modern pop artists writing all of their hits based on this scale (or four chords). But it works because we like it!

I love this video from the "Notes and Neurons" conference in 2009 featuring Bobby McFerrin. It's both heartwarming and hilarious as the audience becomes his instrument. If your students love YouTube, you might want to share this video with them.

If you've decided you want to give composing with the pentatonic scale a try, here are a few tips to help you get started.

  1. Set up your score in advance! When students compose on the black keys, they move quickly. You may have a hard time keeping up, so using a MIDI cable or recording device is a good idea.

  2. If your student is churning out music, but it lacks structure for the audience, encourage them to add cadences. Audiences need breaks in the flow of the melody to keep their ears engaged. Cadence-less music is difficult to listen to for extended periods, so we end up tuning it out.

  3. Help your student identify motives that they like and then repeat them within a given structure, such as ABA or AAB.

Because everything sounds so good in a pentatonic melody, you may find getting them to stop is harder than getting them started!

Here is an example of a pentatonic composition from my studio. Peter, an 11 year old neurodivergent student, composed this entire piece in less than 30 minutes over two-weeks. We added dynamics and articulation markings in our second lesson.

I'd love to hear your comments and suggestions for things that have worked in your studio. Feel free to send me your issues too!

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