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Is there a modal element to pentatonics?

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Postby fleaaaaaa » August 17th, 2012, 3:42 am

I just ask this because I was going through how you can use B minor first position as D major when you start on the D - and have a D chord or D major progression behind you. Now you can see that B minor first position can be two things - it can be sound like a B minor pentatonic - or D major pentatonic - so does this mean there is something modal happening within pentatonic scales? Hope that makes sense.
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Postby hbriem » August 17th, 2012, 5:54 am

Well ... the B minor pentatonic (b-d-e-f#-a) (Aeolian) and the D major pentatonic (d-e-f#-a-b) (Ionian) share the same notes with a different key centre so in a sense, they are modes of each other.

In theory you could construct "modes" from the other 3 notes.

In E (e-f#-a-b-d) it would some sort of Dorian (1-2-4-5-b7) but without the characteristic Dorian note (6) it would sound rather flat and characterless and would swiftly be taken over by one of the other two. I was once told it was used a lot in Scottish folk though.

In F# (f#-a-b-d-e) it is a kind of Phrygian (1-b3-4-b6-b7), but again, lacking the Phrygian b2 and a 5 it has no way to establish is itself either as a tonal centre or as a mode.

In A (a-b-d-e-f#) it's a sort of Mixolydian (1-2-4-5-6) without either a third of some sort and no Mixolydian b7 is like a car with no wheels and no body, kind of pointless.

Modes are pretty pointless anyway. Think of them as alterations of major or minor and then forget them. Pentatonic modes are completely pointless.
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Postby fleaaaaaa » August 17th, 2012, 8:03 am

Okay.... sure there are more answers-a-coming but is that what pentatonics do? They remove many of the characteristics notes of a major or minor scale, it seems they do.... I wonder why the scale was suddenly played that way, surely they came from major and minor scales that preceded them? Or perhaps I am wrong. Anyone know why a pentatonic major/minor are built the way they are?
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Postby almann1979 » August 17th, 2012, 10:05 am

Hbriem, I see what your saying but players like Scott Henderson use pentatonic modal playing all the time. I guess it just depends on how you visualize the notes on the fretboard.

Fleeeeaa, B minor and D major as you know are the same notes. What implies the mode is the chord progression underneath.

The B minor pentatonic could therefore also be seen as some of the notes used in let's say, A dorian, and they would sound like that over an A Dorian chord progression like A minor, G, D, Eminor A minor. However, play that same scale over a chord progression that is definitely B minor, then the scale would sound like a B minor scale etc.

Some useful tricks for getting a modal sound can be found using pentatonics, e.g. Play the pentatonic shape two frets up from your root (in a minor key), and you can get a Dorian type sound etc but you have to still be careful in your notes selection. It is far better not to learn it this way, although it was how I was introduced to it. :o

Also, in terms of how pentatonics are formed, I always thought that they just removed the weakest or less commonly used notes from the seven note scale, to make a scale that seems to be full of the stronger notes.

I might be wrong in all of this, I'm sure note boat will give a far better answer.
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Postby cnev » August 17th, 2012, 10:22 am

FWIW I asked a guitar instructor that once and after he looked at me a bit crazy he said no there is no such thing as modes in pentatonics. Don't know if he's right or not cuz I never really pursued it but you would think if there was such a thing.

I guess it's more along the lines of what hbreim posted it might be modal-ish but not sure you can call them modes.
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Postby almann1979 » August 17th, 2012, 10:40 am

From my understanding, a pentatonic scale cannot in itself be a mode.

However, the scale shape can be used to create a modal sound if you start it from the right fret over the right chord progression. It is this idea, I believe that has gained the term modal pentatonics.

It generally involves using pentatonic scale shapes, but starting on frets different from the root.
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Postby NoteBoat » August 17th, 2012, 5:50 pm

All scales are the way they are because of tradition. There's no particular reason that we divide an octave into twelve parts - other cultures have done it in 17, 24, or other divisions. And all attempts I've seen to explain scales in some rational manner (natural harmonic series, golden number, etc.) seem to be written by folks who don't have a deep understanding of the twists and turns we've gone through over the centuries.

That said, the pentatonic scale is the only one that's universal. Every culture on earth has at least some examples of music that uses it, whether you're looking at stuff from India or the Hopi culture, or Mali, or Quito, or anywhere else.

The idea that scales can be viewed as 'modal' - that is, having the same tones, but a different tonal center - dates to the mid 16th century. That way of thinking is a logical construct created after the fact - the original idea, that there were seven modes of the major scale, arose after six of those scales had been in use for many hundreds of years. But you can apply that logic to any set of tones, including the pentatonic scale.

The only cultures that I'm aware of that do that in practice are Asian. In China and Japan, you'll find examples of music constructed with pentatonic 'modes'.

I disagree with Almann - while a chord progression can imply a tonal center (through the resolution of dominant chords), it's not a critical factor. Some pieces do have a different tonal center in the melody than the chord progression for effect. But most modal melodies will be harmonized with chords that avoid a cadence - if you don't have a tension/release, the melody is free to do whatever it wants. Great examples of this are found in the music of Miles Davis and others, using a chord vamp with no dominant as the harmony for modal improvisation.

And fleaaaa, you can think of the pentatonics as being 'derived' from the major and minor scales. Compared to the major scale, the major pentatonic omits tones 4 and 7 - the only two pitches in a major scale that form a tritone. That's why pentatonics are so popular: they leave out the pitches that are hardest to work with, the two that pull most strongly to melodic resolution (to 3 and 1, respectively).
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Postby fleaaaaaa » August 17th, 2012, 7:24 pm

Thanks...... Just got a question today you see, not a student but I was teaching some people the B minor pentatonic at a guitar orchestra that I go to and saying how it worked with D major as the major pentatonic. The person next to me who plays bass started teaching the rest of the group the scale to "help" me but he wasn't helping because he started adding extra notes in because he didn't understand how it could be a major scale. :lol: He's new to music, I've done it since I was 15.
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Postby Fretsource » August 19th, 2012, 11:57 am

NoteBoat wrote:The idea that scales can be viewed as 'modal' - that is, having the same tones, but a different tonal center - dates to the mid 16th century. That way of thinking is a logical construct created after the fact - the original idea, that there were seven modes of the major scale, arose after six of those scales had been in use for many hundreds of years. But you can apply that logic to any set of tones, including the pentatonic scale.

The only cultures that I'm aware of that do that in practice are Asian. In China and Japan, you'll find examples of music constructed with pentatonic 'modes'.


Actually Scottish folk music uses pentatonic modes, such as ABDEG and others. There's some practical reasoning behind it, which is a lot of folk music was composed for simple diatonic instruments. Pentatonic modes enabled them to shift the tonal centre (between songs) without the need for sharps or flats - (which their instruments often didn't have). Only the rich could afford flats and sharps in those times :) Apparently only 3 modes are used, though, not the full 5.
But like you said with the 7 note modes, pentatonic 'modes' came after the fact. They weren't concerned whether their notes were a mode of something else - just as long as they could fit on their instrument.
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Postby 321Barf » August 24th, 2012, 8:51 pm

If you're playing over a D chord or a D Major progression then you are playing D Major pentatonic, even if you are using what you are calling a B minor pentatonic scale. They're the same notes. But the context is D Major so that is what it is. Context matters.

If you want modal sounds from your pentatonics then you have to superimpose them in ways that give you modal tensions.

Over a D chord try E Major pentatonic and that will give you the 9,#11 and 13 tensions of D Lydian mode.
You could play your favorite C# minor pentatonic shape if you want, but the overall context would be D Lydian.

Over Dm try the E minor pentatonic and that will give you the 9,11, and 13 tension notes of D Dorian mode.

Search the web for more info about superimposing pentatonic scales.
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Postby NoteBoat » August 25th, 2012, 2:23 am

321Barf wrote:If you're playing over a D chord or a D Major progression then you are playing D Major pentatonic, even if you are using what you are calling a B minor pentatonic scale. They're the same notes. But the context is D Major so that is what it is. Context matters.



It's actually tonal center that matters. It's quite possible to play a B minor melodic line over a D major chord progression - if your melody sounds like B minor as a stand-alone (without the chords), the chords won't change its key. You'll end up with a conflict between the melody and the harmony, which is called bimodality.

The average noodler in rock or blues isn't doing that - when you improvise "by ear" you're likely to be lead to a D major melody. But a skilled jazz improvisor may be improvising "by mind", having a solid image of what he or she will play, and knowing how it will mesh with (or clash with) the harmony.

Context is more important in the cadence - the release of tension from a dominant seventh to the chord that follows. Cadence sets up a strong expectation in the listener, because most songs have cadences - the tension gives them a good idea of what should come next, and if the melody doesn't meet expectations it'll sound off. That's why most modal tunes avoid dominant chord types.
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