Minor VS Major Pentatonics

In this lesson we discuss the concepts of Harmonic ContextRelative ScalesParallel Scales, and how these relate to the practical use of Pentatonic scales, and Blues scales.

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Video Transcript:

 HARMONIC CONTEXT: The interaction between melody and harmony


    A single note acquires character and meaning because of the harmony, the chords that were played along with it.

An E for example, sounds different over a C major chord , over an E minor chord, over an FMa7 chord, and it can definitely sound really strange if played over, let’s say... an Ebm chord.

    Well, the same exact thing happens with a scale. A scale is just a group of notes, usually 7 (or 5 in the case of pentatonic scales). For the purpose of clarity we usually arrange these notes in a series according to their pitch from low to high, although in real music we can mix them around as we like.

    Even out of context, a scale does have a certain sonic character because of intervallic structure. In other words, the distance in pitch between the notes. A scale with mostly half steps and whole steps sounds different from one with bigger intervals (like the Pentatonic Scale).

    BUT, when Harmonic Context is added to the equation, it affects the character of the music in a much more profound way:


MODALITY: The variation in the character of a scale, caused by HARMONIC CONTEXT


    When I play the exact same Pentatonic Scale over a certain Harmonic Context, it sounds minor, and over another harmonic context it sounds major. Check out the video above to hear an example of this.

   So what I played was actually 2 modes of the same pentatonic scale. Now people don't usually use the term "modes" when referring to pentatonics, and that's ok, but technically that would be the correct terminology: I played the minor and major modes of the pentatonic scale.




    Relative scales is just another term for modes of the same scale. In the example, I played A minor pentatonic and C major pentatonics, which can either be called modes of the same pentatonic, or relative scales. The distance between the root note of Relative pentatonics is a minor third, that’s three frets apart.

    In the following diagram of a common pentatonic fingering, the little "m" is the root of minor and the capital "M" is the root of the relative Major. Can you see the 3 fret distance between them?

MINOR & MAJOR Pentatonics - Relative Scales

Relative Scales

    The characteristic of relative scales is that they share the same notes, the same fingering on the same fretboard position, and just sound different because of context. Because of this, many times we don't even consciously realize that we are actually playing two modes, but only think of one of them.


    Two scales or modes that have the same root note but different structures are called parallel scales. In most cases these are totally unrelated. Other than the fact that they share the same root, they are usually not interchangeable in a soloing scenario.

However there are exceptions to this (this is called "Modal Interchange"). A common exception is the first 4 bars of a 12 bar blues. In this case, both Am and A major pentatonics can be used, to give a different effect. Again, check out the video for an example of this.

    If you like practicing scales over Backing Tracks, there is a section in the Backing Track Library with tracks for both Minor and Major Pentatonics.


    That's it. I will be posting a lot more on the subject of Pentatonics, so stay tuned.

    Thanks for watching, and remember: Enjoy your practice, and be effective!