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Sound Structures for Music Improvisation

by Renee Leech

Lesson 4. Fight Preconceptions with Pentatonic Mode

If you have ever improvised using the five-tone "blues row," or limited your improvisations to the five black keys of the keyboard, you have experienced the freedom of pentatonic improvising. Hopefully, you found it "goof-proof." You won't find a harsh dissonance or non-melodic line in pentatonic mode.

There is a story in my family of a grandmother who bought a piano, and expected to be able to just sit down and play it. Wasn't that also the mindset of The Music Man, when he first raised his baton to the novice band in River City? And why do people not "just play?" Do we not all have musical and rhythmic intuition?

Composer Carl Orff developed a way of tapping into children's sense of rhythm and melody. He tuned percussive instruments to the pentatonic scale, and encouraged children to play them, ensemble. Technique was not a problem, given the instruments. Dissonance was not a problem, given the pentatonic scale. When I first heard the results on a recording, I was astounded. Not only was the result rich and appealing, it was also easily imitated, conceptually. It was a music of organized patterns--ostinato and melody patterns, not unconcerned with traditional harmonic structure, but certainly able to transcend traditional music limitations.

To repeat this experiment, it remains only to apply the procedures outlined in Lesson 3 (see web address at bottom of our site survey), applying them to the pentatonic scale. After reviewing this article, guitarists should also see the guitar link.

I. Establish patterns in your ostinato. (See Lesson 3.)

II. Weave your melody where it will be heard over the ostinato.

III. Expect the creative process:

A. Experience.

B. Discover.

C. Explore.

Some ways pentatonic improvising can work

I. Establish patterns in your ostinato.

A. Select a harmonic structure:*

B. Select a rhythmic structure.

Surprisingly, improvisers playing as a group, in pentatonic, can play many ostinatos at the same time, without conflict. If the basic beat is kept, the rhythmic patterns will seem interactive. The complexity of many ostinatos going at once is engaging (see sidebar example).

*Pentatonic intervals are counted upwards, as though the base tone is the beginning of a major diatonic scale. If lowered 1/2 step they are minor.

C. Consider a home tone.

To establish a certain mood for your improvisation, select one tone as a home tone, and begin and end the improvisation with that tone. To emphasize the home tone:

II. Weave your melody where it will be heard over the ostinato.

III. Expect the creative process:

A. Experience: Play pentatonic tones in rhythm

B. Discover: Listen carefully and find patterns you like.

C. Explore: Repeat and vary melodic patterns you like.

To harp on a beginner's trap: It's extremely important to remember to stop the melody at the end of a phrase, while the ostinato may keep on going. It can be important to make sure there is a rhythm in the melody, so it does not just play on every beat which the ostinato is keeping.

Enrich your understanding by example and further study.

Starting a new activity is always harder than actually doing it. The only way to do it is to just try it out with the instrument you have available. The trying out, regardless of what instrument or training may be available, is what builds your ability to do it more and with more depth. Nevertheless, one can quickly enlarge one's imagination with study of some guides or examples, such as those that follow.

The American Orff-Schulwerk Association loans audio and video materials for a low fee.

As referenced in Lesson 3, Michael Nyman's piano score for Jane Campion's film, The Piano uses structures and styles Nyman felt the pianist, Ada, would have known. These include structures of pentatonic mode and ostinatos, and styles of 19th century and Scottish music. Use of these elements strongly suggests that Ada is improvising. One might guess that the story's use of black keys to buy back the piano is an allusion to black key (pentatonic) improvising. Nyman's piano score is a good example of how an intermediate or advanced improviser might work with a specific vocabulary of sound for self-expression and growth, at times using pentatonic mode.

The Creative Music books, used in the Robert Pace piano teaching method along with his Music for Piano series, provide detailed exercises for piano students, in manipulating patterns and forms of music.

This chapter has dealt with polyphonic pentatonic music, in terms of improvising both melody and accompaniment. Lesson 5 is contemplated to take a further look at intervals, and discuss their use in monophonic pentatonic melody. If you would like to receive Lesson 5 by email and have not yet completed our site survey, please click here to mark your preferences and leave your email address. Adding "postmaster@creativemusicworks.com" to your email address book will enable the FREE echapter to bypass your spam blocker.

Historical Perspective

When one experiences the simplicity of making pleasing melodies and harmonies on the pentatonic scale, one might surmise it is this simplicity that promoted its common use in folk music around the world, for centuries. Musicologists have collected pentatonic folk music from locations as diverse as China, Japan, Russia, Ireland, Scotland, Finland, Hungary, Turkey, Africa, and the Americas. Anthropologists and archeologists have found ancient flutes with apparent pentatonic and diatonic tunings, two notable examples dating back at least 30,000 years.

Contemporary musicians have not overlooked the pentatonic, although it is often used with an underpinning of diatonic harmony or with the addition of diatonic ornamental tones. Examples would include music of the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and, of course, the blues style.

It's interesting to speculate that early instrument designers knew about the semitones in the diatonic scale and chose to omit them. While other five-tone scale divisions are possible, the common pentatonic tuning parallels the tones in the diatonic scale. The widespread use of this pentatonic tuning of instruments (such as in primitive flutes) could have developed, in part, from an understanding that polyphonic (many sounds at once) group music is more harmonious if the two semitones are omitted.

What Further Pentatonic Sections Are Planned for this Ebook?

For more on the folk and blues aspects of the pentatonic, see other sections to be included in this ebook on Pentatonic Music:

If you have found this ebook of value, or would like to receive sections of this ebook as they are prepared, and have not yet completed our site survey, please take a moment to state your preferences and provide your email address here. Your comments will be appreciated.


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