Back in June I did a post on creating melodies from chord progressions. One method I described was creating melodies based on a pentatonic scale, and I want to explore that idea a little more in this post.
The word pentatonic means “five notes.” If you sit at a keyboard and improvise melodies using only the black keys, you’re using a pentatonic scale — specifically, one that uses Gb as a tonic note.
Do you get stuck when you try to find the chords that will go with the melody you’ve come up with? That’s exactly what “How to harmonize a Melody” is meant to solve. It shows you, step by step, how to add chords to a melody, and contains sound samples so that you can hear how it’s done.
Technically, any 5-note scale that you choose will be a pentatonic scale, but the most common kind is the type you discover when you improvise on the black keys. In C major, we’re talking about these notes: C-D-E-G-A (1-2-3-5-6).
You can dig deeper into the theory of this if you want, and learn about hemitonic scales (those that use one or more semitones) and anhemitonic scales (those that use no semitones). But for the purposes of this post, you won’t need to know anything more than the standard major pentatonic derived by eliminating the 4th and 7th notes of a major scale.
So take any major scale (1-2-3-4-5-6-7), eliminate the 4th and 7th notes (1-2-3-5-6), and you’ve got a pentatonic scale:
- C major pentatonic: C-D-E-G-A
- F major pentatonic: F G A C D
- G major Pentatonic G A B D E
- A minor pentatonic: A-B-C-E-F
- …and so on
Pentatonic melodies are common in traditional spirituals and folk songs (“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Amazing Grace”, etc.) If you want to hear how beautiful a pentatonic melody can sound in pop music, listen to “There’s a Reason” by American indie band Wet.
The verse and pre-chorus consist entirely of pentatonic melodic shapes, and it’s only in the chorus where we hear the 4th note subtly appear in descending scalewise passages. For all intents and purposes, “There’s a Reason” is comprised almost exclusively of pentatonic melodies.
Pentatonic Melodies and Chords
If you’ve written a melody using a pentatonic scale, how do you work out chords? If the melody is avoiding using the 4th and 7th notes, does that apply to the chords you choose as well?
The short answer is no, you can still use the same chords that you might use for any standard progression from major or minor keys. And in fact, you’ll often find the process of fitting chords with melody notes easier when you use pentatonic scales.
The reason for that ease is because the 4th and 7th notes of a major scale are a bit fussy about which chords make them sound good. Take, for example, the 3rd note E in C major pentatonic. It will sound great with:
- a C major chord (where it acts as the 3rd)
- a D minor chord (the 9th of that chord, changing it to Dm9)
- an E minor chord (where it acts as the root)
- an F major chord (where it acts as the 7th, changing it to Fmaj7)
- an A minor chord (where it acts as the 5th)
The 7th note B also has chords that it works well with (C, changing it to Cmaj7, just as one example), but other standard chords where suddenly hearing a B might call for careful preparation for that chord: finding a B in an F chord, for example.
Creating Pentatonic Melodies and Chords
When it comes to pentatonic melodies, improvisation works really well. So try this as one possible process for creating a song section (verse or chorus) based on pentatonic melodies:
- Choose a key, and play through a couple of octaves of the pentatonic scale. This is your best way to learn the scale, and to get familiar with it on your instrument (or voice).
- Improvise melodies on that pentatonic scale. Remember to try lower shapes for verse, and move them higher for chorus ideas.
- Create simple chord progressions and repeat a pentatonic melodic idea over each chord. In that previous post from June, I gave an example of what it might sound like:
That should certainly give you enough of a start that will provide the inspiration to fill in most sections of a song.
And remember, full major scales work nicely in the same song where you’ve used pentatonic melodies, so feel free to do as you hear in “There’s a Reason”: use pentatonic for some sections, and major scale-derived melodies for others within the same song.
One additional bit of advice: You’ll find that simple, basic progressions work well, and have a nice, lulling effect in pentatonic harmonizations:
- I vi IV V (C Am F G)
- I ii I6 IV (C Dm C/E F)
- I IV ii V (C F Dm G)
But as part of your improvisations, try fitting in some altered chords, and also some non-diatonic ones… chords that don’t naturally belong to the chosen key. They might result in a few more clashes, requiring you to adjust your melody if you like the progression:
- I bIII IV I (C Eb F C)
- I vi IV bVII I (C Am F Bb C)
- I IV iv I (C F Fm C)
- I V bVI bVII I (C G Ab Bb C)
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