Jazz Theory 11

  1. The Origin of Scales
  2. The Major Pentatonic Scale
  3. Its relation to the Circle of Fifths
  4. Pentatonic Scale Practice
  5. The Minor Pentatonic Scale
  6. The Blues Scale
  7. Blues Riffs
  8. Quiz and Quiz Answers
  9. Ear tests 19 & 20 and Answers
  10. Lesson Material - General files

    Jazz Theory lessons online

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JT 11.1 - The Origin of Scales

In the early stage of the development of music scales were derived directly from melodies. This was achieved by

  1. leaving out repeated notes, and
  2. placing the remaining ones in step wise order.

As music developed, the above process was reversed. Existing scales - and newly constructed ones - were used to compose new melodies.
Scales therefore represent the resource from which new melodies and chordal harmonies are created.

Scales are of utmost importance for improvisation.
For an improvisation is the instant composition of a new melody over the chord progression of an existing song.
The improvisation uses therefore the same scale(s) from which the original melody and underlying chord progression were created.

Early music was entirely 'modal' : each song composed from one scale only.
Later (during the past 400 years or so) music became more complex, using different scales within the one composition.

Scales have originated through chance, intuition, or scientific reasoning.
In retrospect many intuitive scales have later been found to be in accordance with new discoveries of acoustic principles.
The major pentatonic scale is an excellent example of this.

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JT 11.2 - The Major Pentatonic Scale

The major pentatonic scale is the oldest recorded and most enduring scale in the world.

The major pentatonic scale is, as the name indicates, a five tone scale.

It consists of the notes 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 of the major scale (in any key).

In the key of C :

Audio 1

This scale is without a doubt the Olympic Champion of all scales.

The oldest records of this scale date back from China and also Greece some 2500 years ago. The scale has featured in musical cultures all over the world, such as China, Japan, India, Africa, America and Europe.

The Japanese anthem is based on it, so are many Gregorian chants, Irish music, Negro Spirituals (Nobody Knows the Trouble I have Seen), Scottish tunes (The Skye boat Song) and Jazz standards (I Got Rhythm, Sweet Georgia Brown).

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JT 11.3 - Its Relationship with the Circle of Fifths

Why has the major pentatonic scale always been so enduring and popular ?

The answer can be found on the Circle of Fifths.


Tick off each note of the C major pentatonic scale on the Circle of Fifths.

What do you see ?


The five notes are not scattered around the Circle (as one on the basis of statistical probability would expect). They are instead bunched together, forming a solid segment on the Circle of Fifths.

In other words, the notes of the major pentatonic scale are acoustically closely related. They form an uninterrupted string of Overtone No.3 (Dominant) to Fundamental (Tonic) relationships.

The major pentatonic scale relates therefore right back to the acoustics of a single tone. It reflects nature itself and nature is always fresh, never boring. Other scales have come and gone, but the major pentatonic scale will always be with us.

The scale-tones of the major pentatonic scale form a succession of whole tone (major 2nd) and minor 3rd intervals.
The scale therefore sounds partly like a scale, partly like a broken chord. (There are no semitones in this scale.)

Audio 1

This makes it a great scale for improvisation. Even when playing straight up or down the scale it sounds already like a melody.

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JT 11.4 - Pentatonic Scale Practice

Practise the major pentatonic scale in all 12 keys. Practise each scale over a 2-octave range.
Good keyboard fingering for right and left hand in all keys are in the Scales Book. (It also includes advice for a good play technique for this scale.)

When you are comfortable playing the scales straight up and down, practice each scale also in patterns. Here are three patterns for the C major pentatonic scale for example :

Audio 2

Play each of these three patterns also over a 2-octave range, both going up, then down.

These patterns are most useful. They greatly increase your technical facility and knowledge of each scale. Once you have mastered these, try to incorporate them in your improvisation.

There is Play-a-Long track for the C major pentatonic scale included in the Lesson Material. The track alternates between the C chord and the Am chord, each chord goes for 4 bars.

C - C - C - C - Am - Am - Am - Am

Try some improvisation using notes from the C major pentatonic scale only (A major pent. for Eb-instruments, D major pent. for Bb-instruments).

You can also improvise over the basic blues progression.
In this case use the

  • C major pentatonic over the C chord
  • F major pentatonic over the F chord
  • G major pentatonic over the G chord

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JT 11.5 - The Minor Pentatonic scale

The minor pentatonic scale is a mode of the major pentatonic scale.

This means that it uses the same note as the major pentatonic scale, but the tonic note for the scale is different. This creates a distinctly different sound for the new scale.

Starting the C major pentatonic scale on the 6th note of the scale produces the A minor pentatonic scale.

Audio 3

The C major pentatonic and A minor pentatonic are so called related scales.The C scale sounds major, whereas the A scale has a distinctly minor sound.

Related scales have their tonic notes 3 semitones (a m3) apart.
Therefore the C minor pentatonic is derived from its related Eb major pentatonic scale.


You can use the minor pentatonic scale for improvisation over the blues.
Use only the one minor pentatonic scale for the entire blues progression.

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JT 11.6 - The Blues Scale

We dealt with the Blues scale earlier (in Lesson 7), but We can now look at this 6-note scale from a different perspective :

Audio 4

As above illustration clearly shows, the Blues scale is the minor pentatonic scale with one note added, the b5 (forming the tritone : C-Gb).

This added note forms an isolated island on the Circle of Fifths, which spoils the acoustic relationships that underlie the true pentatonic scales.
The Blues scale is therefore a flavour scale. It reflects the typical blues mood. But it is like sugar in a cup of tea. Use it in moderation, otherwise it spoils the drink.

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JT 11.7 - Blues Riffs

jt007.gif: In Jazz terminology a riff is a short motif or phrase which is repeated several times.
It can form the background to a melody or solo. This is very often the case in big bands where a whole section (the brass or the saxophones) play a background riff in harmony.
In smaller groups a background riff can be invented on the spur of the moment, where one player initiates the idea and other players pick it up.

A riff can also form the theme of a melody. This is especially popular with the 12 bar blues, where a 4 bar riff is played three times to form a complete Blues melody.
The different chords that underlie the riff provide all of the variation.

Because the minor pentatonic and the blues scales are used over all the chords in the blues progression they are also ideal resources for blues melody riffs.

Here are three famous Blues riff examples.

Audio 5

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JT 11.8 - Quiz

Hint : Remember (when doing Quiz B, C, D, E and G) that each of the 12 major pentatonic scales forms a continuous segment on the Circle of Fifths !

Unscramble these major pentatonic scales :

  1. A - C - F - D - G

  2. G - Eb - C - Bb - F

  3. Bb - Ab - C - F - Eb

  4. C# - F# - E - B - G#

  5. B - A - D - G - E

  6. A - E - D - B - F#

1. How many major pentatonic scales can you construct from the seven white notes on the keyboard ?

2. Which major pentatonic scale can you construct from the five black notes on the keyboard ?

What are the resources for each of these
three blues riffs ?

2. Compose your own blues riffs for the Blues in the keys of F and G.
(Backing tracks are included in the Lesson Material.)

How many major pentatonic scales contain the note 'C', and which ones are they ?

Complete the following Major pentatonic scales by adding 1 more note. There are two solutions for each case.

  1. A - B - D - E

  2. Bb - C - Eb - F

  3. Ab - Bb - Db - Eb

  4. F# - G# - B - C#

  5. C - D - F - G

Which chords can you construct from the C major pentatonic scale ?


Mark the major pentatonic scale in all keys on the Keyboard Diagrams.
Use the semitone formula : - 2s - 2s - 3s - 2s - 3s -

Write the major pentatonic scale in all keys on the Scale Letters Diagrams.
Use the scale-tone numbers : 1 - 2 - 3 - 5 - 6 - 1

Mark the minor pentatonic scale in all keys on the Keyboard Diagrams.
Use the semitone formula : - 3s - 2s - 2s - 3s - 2s -

Write the minor pentatonic scale in all keys on the Scale Letters Diagrams.
Use the scale-tone numbers : 1 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b7 - 1

Quiz Answers

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JT 11.9 - Ear tests 19 & 20

The following ear tests are for the the 5-note and 6-note scales we have dealt with in this course.
They are the :

major pentatonic scale :

minor pentatonic scale :

blues scale :

whole-tone scale :

- t - t - ts - t - ts -

- ts - t - t - ts - t -

- ts - t - s - s - ts - t

- t - t - t - t - t - t -

Audio Demos of these four scales for the C tonic :

1. major pentatonic scale

2. minor pentatonic scale

3. blues scale

4. whole-tone scale

- t - t - ts - t - ts -

- ts - t - t - ts - t -

- ts - t - s - s - ts - t -

- t - t - t - t - t - t -

(1 - 2 - 3 - 5 - 6 - 1)

(1 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b7 - 1)

(1 - b3 - 4 - b5 - 5 - b7 - 1)

(1 - 2 - 3 - b5 - b6 - b7 - 1)

Single Items test
Each number plays one of the above C scales : 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 |

Ear test 19 : Pentatonic scales only.

Each scale is played twice, the first time ascending only, the second time both ascending and descending.

Ear test 19 - 8 scales : major pent. and minor pent. only

Ear test 20 : 5-note and 6-note scales.

Ear test 20 - 12 scales : major pent. - minor pent. - blues - whole tone

Ear test Answers

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JT 11.10 - Lesson Material

File Name Contents
jt11fac.gif Jazz Theory 11 - Facts sheet



Keyboard Diagrams

Manuscript paper

Scale Letters Diagrams



Pentatonic scales 1 (p.12)

Pentatonic scales 2 (p.13)






Three Blues riffs : C- scores

Three Blues riffs : Bb- and Eb- scores

Three Blues riffs : Play-a-Long midi file

Basic Blues in F : : Play-a-Long midi file

Basic Blues in G : : Play-a-Long midi file

jtmap.mid Play-a-Long for C major pentatonic improvisation
(see Practice)

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© 1998 - 2008 Michael Furstner (Jazclass)