Minor Pentatonic Modes
A pentatonic scale is a musical scale with five notes per octave, in contrast to the heptatonic scale, which has seven notes per octave (such as the major scale and minor scale).
Pentatonic scales were developed independently by many ancient civilizations and are still used in various musical styles to this day, and minor pentatonic modes are one of them which very essential in understanding the scales in music, there are 4 types of minor pentatonic modes which we will discuss in the latter part of the blog. There are two types of pentatonic scales: those with semitones (hemitonic) and those without (anhemitonic).
From what we’ve learned so far, we can easily list all of the modes of the minor pentatonic scale. Since it contains 5 notes there will be five of them. I’ve included audio examples for each mode to help you hear how that mode/scale sounds. Each audio track consists of the following (in order):
1. Scale tones played up and down (starting and ending on the Root note) — this will help to establish the scale’s tonal center in our ears.
2. A series of chords that belong to that scale. Since at this point in the book you may not be familiar with how chords are built and generated by scales, just focus on the sound of the chords, and notice how everything relates to the first chord that is played. After you go through the chord section later in the book you can come back to these scale audios again and it will be clear why those chords are played.
3. An improvisation excerpt over a drone note (a note, usually a low bass note, that is sustained or is constantly sounding throughout the excerpt in the background). The following example will be in A, so we’ll be using A note as the drone note over which we’ll be playing scale tones for each mode separately, in a musical way (improvise basically).
Hearing, distinguishing and using modes is a process that will take some time, but once you do it, most of the things in theory will start to make much more sense, the dots will be connected, and it will make you a much better musician. So be patient and take your time with this. Let’s get to the modes.
Minor Pentatonic Mode 1 – Minor Pentatonic Scale
The first mode of the minor pentatonic scale is just the minor pentatonic scale. It consists of a:
Root, minor 3rd, Perfect 4th, Perfect 5th, minor 7th
In A, the scale is: A, C, D, E, G. Here’s how this scale, or mode 1, sounds:
Minor Pentatonic Scale Mode 1 audio example in A.
Pay close attention how each of the notes played sound against the backing drone note. Some will add tension, some will feel more pleasant and some will provide resolution.
Minor Pentatonic Mode 2 – Major Pentatonic Scale
The second mode of the minor pentatonic scale has a special name. It is the Major pentatonic scale, as we’ve seen in the previous section. It consists of the following intervals:
Root, Major 2nd, Major 3rd, Perfect 5th, Major 6th
With abbreviations: R, M2, M3, P5, M6
In C, the notes are: C, D, E, G, A;
C is the relative major key of A minor pentatonic, which is considered its parent scale. You don’t need to understand this for now, just have the idea in your mind.
Here is the key thing — in the improvisation excerpt for this mode we will be playing over the A drone note again so the tonal center will be A. In order to hear how this mode sounds we will play Major pentatonic scale, or mode 2 minor pentatonic scale, in A rather than C, over this backing note. Hope you’re still with me.
In order to do that, we need the notes of the A Major pentatonic scale, so we just apply the Major pentatonic formula starting from the A note. This formula is shown on Figure given below, but here it is again:
R – T – M2 – T – M3 – TS – P5 – T – M6 – TS – R
And the notes of the A Major pentatonic scale are:
A – T – B – T – C# – TS – E – T – F# – TS – A (Octave)
Now all we have to do is simply play these notes, improvise a melody with them, and listen to their individual (as well as overall) effect over the A drone note. This will give us the sound of the mode 2 of minor pentatonic scale, or simply: Major pentatonic scale.
Minor Pentatonic Mode 2 audio example in A.
Again, pay close attention to each of the notes and how it sounds against the backing A drone note. Notice how the Major 3rd, C# in this case, gives it that major upbeat feel. Be patient with this.
Minor Pentatonic Mode 3
Hope your head doesn’t hurt much after all this as we will now examine another mode. 🙂 Luckily, it’s the same concept for other modes, and if you get it once, you get it for all modes. From then it’s just continuous practice and patience.
The third mode in our A minor pentatonic example begins on D and consists of a:
Root, Major 2nd, Perfect 4th, Perfect 5th, minor 7th
Or simply: R, M2, P4, P5, m7
Let’s quickly recap how we got to this (it’s the same process as with the Major pentatonic mode).
In Mode 1 of the A minor pentatonic the notes were: A, C, D, E, G. Mode 3 begins on the 3rd note, which is D, and continues from there.
So the notes, now in D, are: D, E, G, A, C.
D is no longer Perfect 4th of A, it is now the Root.
E is no longer the Perfect 5th of A, it is now the Major 2nd relative to D.
G is no longer the minor 7th of A, it is now the Perfect 4th relative to D.
A is no longer the Root, it is now the Perfect 5th relative to D
C is no longer the minor 3rd of A, it is now the minor 7th relative to D.
Try to do this for modes 4 and 5 by yourself when we get to them, it will be a nice little mental workout.
Now again, D minor pentatonic mode 3 is relative mode to the A minor pentatonic because they share the same notes, and A minor pentatonic is its parent scale. But since our backing drone note is still A (in the audio example), in order to hear the characteristic sound of this mode we need to use minor pentatonic mode 3 in A.
So we just take the mode 3’s interval structure with the scale formula and apply it starting from the A note again. This will give us the following notes:
A(R) – T – B(M2) – TS – D(P4) – T – E(P5) – TS – G(m7) – T – A(O)
Playing this set of notes and intervals in A, over the A backing drone note will give us the sound of the mode 3 of the minor pentatonic scale.
Minor Pentatonic Mode 3 audio example in A.
Minor Pentatonic Mode 4
The fourth mode begins on E and consists of a:
Root, minor 3rd, Perfect 4th, minor 6th, minor 7th
Its notes are: E, G, A, C, D.
Now E is the Root and we have a new set of intervals. But again, since we will be playing over A drone note we’ll need to use minor pentatonic mode 4 in A to get its sound. So we take its interval structure along with the scale formula (T’s and TS’s), and apply them starting from A note. This will give us the following notes:
A(R) – TS – C(m3) – T – D(P4) – TS – F(m6) – T – G(m7) – T – A(O)
It is worth nothing again: the intervals in parenthesis explain the note’s relationship to the Root. Like with any mode, those intervals define a mode and are responsible for its characteristic sound.
Minor Pentatonic Mode 4 audio example in A.
Minor Pentatonic Mode 5
Finally, the fifth mode begins on the 5th note of the minor pentatonic scale, which in our A minor pentatonic example is G. It has a:
Root, a Major 2nd, a Perfect 4th, a Perfect 5th and a Major 6th
Its notes, in G, are: G, A, C, D, E.
To get this mode’s sound over the A drone note used in the audio example we will have to use minor pentatonic mode 5 in A.
Without repeating the whole process again, the notes of the 5th minor pentatonic mode in A, are:
A(R) – T – B(M2) – TS – D(P4) – T – E(P5) – T – F#(M6) – TS – A(O)
Minor Pentatonic Mode 5 audio example in A.
We’ve seen that mode 5 of A minor pentatonic is in G, with the notes: G, A, C, D, E. As it has been stated several times, the backing drone note in our audio improvisation excerpts is A, so to get the mode’s sound we had to use minor pentatonic mode 5 in A instead (it can get confusing since modes of the minor pentatonic don’t have special names like the diatonic modes). The point is, we could’ve used the 5th mode of A minor pentatonic, which starts on G, for the improvisation excerpts, but in that case we would have to play over the G drone note to hear the characteristics of the A minor pentatonic 5th mode sound. Since we played the 5th mode of the minor pentatonic in A, can you figure out its parent minor pentatonic scale? It’s B minor pentatonic.
Don’t worry if you don’t get this now, it will be clearer when we get to diatonic modes, just remember, modes are completely relative to what’s playing in the background – playing the same thing over a different backing will have different effects.
On another note, the sound of a mode becomes a bit more apparent when it’s played over a full chord, or a chord progression in the backing track. Though it’s important (and easier to learn modes) to just start with a drone note and keep it simple at the beginning.
Minor Pentatonic Mode Comparison Charts
To sum up, here’s a table showing minor pentatonic modes in A with their interval functions:
If you want a good workout you can try to fill out this table in a different key, for example C (you would start with C as the Root note in the top left corner).
Notice on above Table how notes and their functions change with different modes. Notice for example how modes 2 and 5 are similar — Mode 2 has a Major 3rd (3) and Mode 5 has Perfect 4th (4). Look for patterns and notice the differences.
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