Why are pentatonic scales so pleasing?

I can’t stop writing music in pentatonic scales, I just love the sound of them. I always seem to gravitate towards Pelog or Iwato, or Insen or Hirajoshi (I think they are all pentatonic?) and can listen for hours to randomly generated notes through these scales. I do find that there seems to be less excitement with them, sometimes you just need another chord/note to make a change interesting, but they just sound so good.


simpler than larger scales, so less stuff to keep track of.

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I’m not very familiar with those scales. Though you might want to look into the tuning. I am familiar with the Chinese pentatonic scale. Chinese use the fourth and seventh, but they both considered weak, and play mostly pentatonic music. In part it is the tuning of the notes. They arrive at the scale by tuning a sequence of perfect fifths and perfect fourths. EG the first and fifth are perfect, the fifth and second are a perfect fourth. The second and sixth are a perfect fifth, the third and sixth are a perfect fourth and so on. Of note, the octave in this tuning is not unison and the fourth and seventh are notably kind of off hence the weakness and deemphasis.

While still being diatonic, it has a peculiar sound, eg suspended seconds and fourths have much more meaning, and are more functional than western equal tempered. Often times there are cycles of modes that yield motion rather than typical V->I transisitons.

You might want to look into how they actually tune the notes for the Japanese instruments, being pentatonic there is little relation to the Chinese pentatonic in actual intervals or function.

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Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale - YouTube


That’s really interesting, is there a particular name that scale is known by? The tuning sounds sounds fascinating. Do you have any youtube examples? I’d love to hear it, I have a feeling it is exactly what I’m interested in, I love the sound of koto and similar Asian instruments.

Is it possible to set up that kind of tuning in Rack? I have to admit I wouldn’t know where to start, I used to play sitar so I’m familiar with Just and Equal but that sounds like something entirely different.

Tonight I was playing with BespokeSynth which handily allows equal, ratio, just, pyth and mean intonations and a bunch of unusual scales. I was using just with Iwato and hirajoshi but I don’t know what those scales are meant to be played in or even what the other available intonations are. I will look into what you mentioned though, it sounds very interesting.

I suspect that is what makes them sound good and also what makes them feel like they need something else sometimes, all notes relate easily but there perhaps is not the in-between notes to create tension and interest that we might be used to hearing as development.

No minor seconds so if you generate chords at random they don’t ever sound totally inharmonious.

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I may be completely wrong here but i seem to recall someone saying that one of the reasons pentatonic scales are so pleasing to work with is that they allow you to flip between major and minor without anything jarring

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That is right for “the western” pentatonic, but Hirajoshi has two of them…

Well, in western music a lot of combinations of 7 notes in a scale can be interpreted as minor or major. A scale is nothing without a musical definition of a root (context).

Let me be the heretic here: You do not use pentatonic scales, you just omit the notes of a traditional western harmony scale, that wants to resolve to something. I am not talking about the microtonal stuff like Pelog. But C Hirajoshi is part of the following scales: D#/Eb major; D#/Eb ionian; C harmonic minor; C natural minor; F dorian; G phrygian; G#/Ab lydian; A#/Bb mixolydian; C aeolian; D locrian;

And again, it is all depending on the musical context. What chord-changes are you using, what is the root in your composition, what is the harmony your scale is played over? Without that, there is no scale.


The pentatonic scale has no possible dissonant intervals, the minor second and tritone/diminished fifth.


I think this is it: Chinese musicology - Wikipedia

They talked about it as if it is the same as a Pythagorean tuning, but in the fine print they say that is only the nearest equivalent. Interestingly the Chinese system is a closer approximation than the Pythagorean tuning, because the fourth’s and fifth’s ill temperament are in different directions and cancel each other out, as they go up.

However, they do mention that it is actually a number of different tunings. For example traditional flute the dizi can’t modulate, and dizi players will usually have a number of flutes. The pipa(four string lute) is actually tuned with a suspended fourth.

Jasmine Flower (茉莉花)-Chinese Traditional Music - YouTube

There is an older instrument called the qin, which these scales were developed on.

Another way to think about what other people here have pointed out: if you write out notes in the circle of fifths, all of the usual pentatonic scales are simply any 5 consecutive notes. Ethan Hein has some nice pictures of this on his blog:

I also like this image from Wikipedia relating the pentatonics to the classical scale modes.


A lot of wind chimes with 6 tubes are pentatonic, which is perfect for random melodies.

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