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The easy guide to music theory: learn to play keyboard solos using the pentatonic scale

You could be an African tribesman or a New York stockbroker, a virtuoso musician or a tone-deaf layperson; yet whichever part of the planet you’re from, and regardless of your musical background, there’s a recurring scale that appears in so many musical systems that it seems to be hardwired into our genetic makeup.

This essential melodic building block is the pentatonic scale, and it has the benefit of being instantly recognisable, subconsciously at least, to anyone who hears it.  

We call the scale ‘pentatonic’ because it contains just five notes, as opposed to the seven notes found in the conventional heptatonic scales of most Western music. Play just the black notes of a piano keyboard, starting on F#, and you have an F# major pentatonic scale.

But why would having fewer notes at your disposal be any kind of an advantage? For one thing, pentatonic melodies tend to be easier to sing, and they’re often more memorable. Countless songs over the last few centuries have used forms of the scale as their foundation, from Amazing Grace to Superstition.

The pentatonic scale works over a large number of underlying chord progressions due to there being fewer notes in the scale for chords to conform to. Probably the greatest thing about the pentatonic scale, though, is that it can cover both major and minor chord progressions without changing the pattern of notes played.

All this means that, by learning a few easy five-note scales, you can play cool-sounding riffs, leads and solos that should work over most common progressions. Check out the video above to find out how it all works.

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