“Black Keys Only, Please”: How One Musical Scale Can Set You Free

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

How many times have you been told — or maybe even believed yourself — that people are either naturally musical or not? And, furthermore, that “unmusical people” are forever stuck admiring the musical ones from afar.

This simply isn’t true.

I’ll spare that conversation for another time, but know that you do not need natural talent, nor do you need extensive knowledge or experience to be able to express yourself through music.

But if you find yourself still thinking you can’t be musical without sounding horrible, I’m going to show you a quick and simple solution using a special little scale that I discovered a few years ago.

The night I made this life-altering discovery, I had just finished a three-hour practice session on the piano. Mentally exhausted, I spent the last fifteen minutes mindlessly tapping out melodies using only the white keys, but I constantly found myself running into notes that didn’t sound good with each other.

I was on the verge of giving up for the night, when, out of nowhere, the thought popped into my head: “what if I used all the black keys instead?”

Had you walked into the room at that moment, you would have found me sitting at my piano in a catatonic state, eyes glued to the keyboard, mind blown at the fact that it was impossible to produce those atrocious harmonies that I hated so much.

At the time, I had no idea what I had just uncovered, but I would later find out it was the F# Major Pentatonic Scale.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Before we talk about the Major Pentatonic Scale in general, let’s first understand where it comes from.

The Major Scale

You’ve definitely come across this scale before. Maybe you sang it in your elementary school music class. Or maybe you heard Julie Andrews sing it to the seven children in The Sound of Music.

The Major Scale is a 7-note scale constructed using the following formula:

(Obeying Julie Andrews, we will give each note a name.)

Let’s think of our Major Scale as the block of carving marble that we begin with before we start chiseling pieces away.

This is exactly how we’re going to create our Pentatonic Scale.

The Pentatonic Scale

When we remove two notes from our Major Scale, Fa and Ti, we are left with a 5-note scale (hence the name “penta-”), which looks something like this:

Creating C Major Pentatonic Scale from C Major Scale

The elimination of these two specific notes consequently removes those half steps that we previously had in our Major Scale (between Mi-Fa and Ti-Do.)

It is for this precise reason that the Major Pentatonic Scale is virtually fool-proof. From now on, any combination of notes within the scale is bound to harmonize well.

Wait, but why does that work?

A half step is the smallest possible distance between two notes. This makes them the most dissonant or harsh sounding when played together.

If you have a piano, go ahead a try this! Play our half-step related notes together (Fa with Mi and then Ti with Do). Listen to what happens.

In a Pentatonic Scale, we no longer have these half steps, and thus we have eliminated the possibility of producing that particularly discordant sound.

Photo by Geert Pieters on Unsplash

So Why F# Major Specifically?

Why not pick any of the Major Pentatonic Scales? Like G Major Pentatonic or A Major Pentatonic, for instance?

Well, look here!

F#Major Pentatonic Scale

When we start on F# as our Do — that first black key I’ve indicated — and keep the spacing between all the notes the same, all the successive notes will be black keys.

This is significant because using only the black keys eliminates the extra brainpower needed to remember which specific notes to omit.

Remember the picture of the C Major Pentatonic Scale? This one right here:

C Major Pentatonic Scale

If we use this form of the scale, we would have to actively remember not to play Fa or Ti.

This may not sound like a difficult task, but it’s still a distraction, especially for beginner musicians or those who do not have extensive keyboard experience.

With the F# Major Pentatonic Scale, all the notes we need literally stand from the keyboard, making themselves readily available for us to use without a second thought.

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

Using the F# Major Pentatonic Scale

Alright, so now we know what the F# Major Pentatonic Scale is and how to derive it, but how do we actually use it?

The best answer I can give you is…however you want.

Seriously! Use any notes in any combination imaginable. Play even the simplest of melodies and see where they take you — after all, the Major Pentatonic Scale gives you the liberty to use all of its notes without the risk of egregious error.

With this amount of musical freedom, allow yourself to explore all of the possibilities.

Photo by Tadas Mikuckis on Unsplash

A Defense for the F# Major Pentatonic Scale

Before you go whipping out your new-found skill in public, I have to warn you of the common critique that some people have, claiming that the F# Major Pentatonic is “cheating.”

That makes sense, right? If any combination of notes you play is an almost guaranteed success of sounding good, and you don’t have to think about the notes you need to avoid, then in a sense it is too easy.

However, I hate to be the one to say that if this were the case, humans have been cheating for centuries. And we still do today!

The Major Pentatonic Scale is all around us, but you may not have known it.

Professional musicians use the Major Pentatonic Scale all the time, specifically for the reason that it is so harmonically reliable.

Here is a very small list of songs that utilize the infamous scale, either in the vocal melodies or elsewhere in the music:

  • “Let It Be” The Beatles — C major pentatonic
  • “Amazing Grace” (Traditional Hymn) — Any major pentatonic
  • “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (Traditional Song) — G major pentatonic
  • “A Ri Rang” (Traditional Korean Song ) — Any major pentatonic
  • “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd — G major pentatonic
  • “As Long As You Follow” by Fleetwood Mac — F major pentatonic
  • “Sweet Home Alabama” Lynyrd Skynyrd — G major pentatonic
  • “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts — E major pentatonic
  • “My Girl” by The Temptations — C and F major pentatonic
  • “Barcelona” by The Big Moon — F major pentatonic

The only difference between any other Major Pentatonic Scale and the F# Major Pentatonic scale is the note we choose to start with. So why should we discriminate?

Photo by Rukma Pratista on Unsplash

So Now What?

Whether or not you remember anything I’ve told you about the F# Major Pentatonic Scale, I do want you to remember this:

Playing music isn’t some sort of black magic or untouchable doctrine reserved for the people who can understand it.

Everyone possesses both the ability and the right to express themselves through music, regardless of who they are.

But if you’re one of those people I mentioned at the beginning of our journey — the ones who are perhaps a little timid or doubtful of their musical capabilities — maybe it’s time to take the F# Major Pentatonic Scale by the hand, find a piano, and let your mind run wild.

Instagram: elie.ziehl | Gmail: e.y.ziehl@gmail.com College freshman, musician, and writer, striving to open up discussions of music to the average listener

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