Tim Cummings: Tunes in A pentatonic major

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Theory Top-Up
by Tim Cummings
Piping Today #74, 2015.

In the last article in this series, we examined a scale and its associated tunes which contain fewer than the usual seven notes that make up standard Western musical scales. Specifically, we explored a ‘gapped’ scale in A — that is, a scale based on A that has only six notes (skipping the C#).

Today I’d like to look at an even simpler scale, one commonly referred to as the pentatonic scale. If you’re already familiar with the Greek prefix ‘penta’, you’ll probably guess we’re now dealing with the number five. The word ‘tonic’, in music-speak, refers to tone, and so the term pentatonic predictably refers to scales and pieces of music that are comprised of five tones, or five pitches.

Pentatonic music is special. To quote the Harvard Dictionary of Music, “The tonal pentatonic scale … occurs in the music of nearly all ancient cultures — China, Polynesia, Africa — as well as that of the American Indians, Celts and Scots.” It would seem those dictionary know-it-alls aren’t lying, since roughly 60% of the piobaireachd found in the Kilberry Book of Ceòl Mòr could be considered to be pentatonic1 (compared to maybe 10% of ceòl beag). Many medieval Gregorian chants are pentatonic, and of those that aren’t, a good number are thought to have started out as such. Carl Orff and Waldorf/Steiner methodologies heavily encourage the use of pentatonic music with young children. Amazing Grace, one of the most widely known melodies on the planet, is pentatonic. Even tubular wind chimes are generally tuned to pentatonic scales.


1. By my count, 65 of the 118 urlars are wholly pentatonic (ignoring gracings), another 10 are pentatonic except for a single appearance of a sixth note, and one other urlar has only four notes. Please note, however, that I surveyed these urlars as a theorist of Western-style music; and pìobaireachd often defies Western classification, with scholars successfully arguing that the ‘double-tonic archetypes’ (1s and 0s) approach is a more fitting tool for analyzing the various tonalities of ceòl mór. For more information on this approach, please refer to Barnaby Brown’s articles (Piping Today issues #70 and #71), and those on his website: http://barnabybrown.info/publications/


The reason for its popularity is because it’s very hard to play anything pentatonic and not have it sound good. This is largely because the most prevalent pentatonic scales avoid semitones, or the more dissonant intervals (e.g. our C# played in combination with a D, or F# with a G). This is an important thing to remember anytime you’re around those obnoxious, feral children who bang random keys on the piano with their fists. If you decree that only the black keys may be played, their improvisations will sound markedly better. If you ask them to play those black keys softly, it will become genuinely beautiful music, and lives will be saved. As it happens, there are precisely five black keys per octave on the piano, meaning that if you play only the black keys, you are automatically creating music that is pentatonic. The next time you’re near a reasonably in-tune piano or keyboard, try out that idea — you’ll be delighted.

There are many different pentatonic scales in our world, several of which appear in our common Scottish pipe repertoire. For now, I want to focus on our most common one: A pentatonic major. I believe this particular scale is the basis of approximately 5% of our ceòl beag. Theoretically speaking, five-note scales cannot be wholly major or minor, but depending on which five notes are being employed, the major and minor distinctions can certainly be implied and easily felt.

Here is the A pentatonic major scale, as we would play it on the pipes:

A pentatonic major scale

Like any specific key, tunes that are based on the above scale have a particular feel to them. Sing or play through as many of the below tunes as you can, and see if you can start to get a sense of the consistently light, joyful and uncomplicated feel of A pentatonic major:

• Buntàta’s Sgadan (strathspey, reel)
Dancing Feet (reel)
• The Glasgow City Police Pipers* (jig)
• In Memory of The Youngest Shipley (slow air/waltz)
• Inverinate House (reel)
• The Kesh Jig
• Loch Maree (3/4 retreat)
• Miss Ishabel T. MacDonald** ( 6/8 march)
• Molly Connell* (strathspey)
• Morag of Dunvegan [without harmonies] (slow march)
• Sine Bhan (Fair Jean) (slow march)
• Song of the Maid (3/4 retreat)

*These tunes were mentioned in the article on A-Major (issue #72) before I decided that pentatonic tunes deserved their own feature.
**There are a couple of insignificant high-Gs in the 2nd part which do not seem to compromise the pentatonic flavour.

In some of the slower tunes in this key, the joyful nature may be replaced by a sweet nostalgia but they nonetheless retain the beautiful, gentle simplicity so characteristic of pentatonic music. No wonder piobaireachd has remained so beloved all these centuries.

Closing reminders: Smallpipers and Border pipers, if you find yourself playing a tune that is in A pentatonic major on a standard A chanter, tune your drones to A and/or E, and tell any accompanists that you are playing in A-Major. Accompanists don’t need to know that it’s pentatonic, specifically, and besides, they will likely employ the missing two notes in some of their chords. If you plan on changing keys at any point in a particular tune set, you’ll probably want to mute the E drone and just use drones tuned to A. Accompanists will thank you. Highland pipers, please don’t forget you’re playing transposing instruments, and that a tune written in the key of A, will sound in the key of Bb  — or somewhat sharper — when played on a standard set of Highland pipes. •

Tim Cummings plays, teaches, writes and publishes bagpipe music. His Theory Top-Up series has been running in Piping Today magazine for more than five years.