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A Pentatonic Scale Activity

Module by: Catherine Schmidt-Jones. E-mail the author

Summary: An activity for elementary school students that introduces a pentatonic scale, suitable for a music class or for a unit on any country or culture with traditional music that uses pentatonic scales (e.g. China, Korea, Japan).

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Figure 1: Any instrument arranged like the keys of a piano is ideal for this activity. The scales can be found easily: C major is all the "white key" notes from C to C. The C sharp pentatonic scale is all the "black key" notes from C sharp to C sharp.
Figure 1 (keyboard.png)

Materials and Preparation

  • This activity works best if each student has access to a keyboard instrument, xylophone, glockenspiel, or some instrument in which the notes are laid out like the keys of a piano.
  • You should also have an instrument and be ready to demonstrate the scales and the songs. If you are not a musician, read the instructions below and practice a few times before you play for your class.
  • A globe or world map on which to locate eastern Asia is useful but not necessary.
  • If a recording of some pentatonic music is available, bring it and also some music in a major or minor key, and an audio player.


  1. Explain that a scale is like a list of the notes that you will find in a piece of music. One of the things that can make music from another culture sound different is that it may be using a different scale, or a different set of notes, to make the songs. If you have recordings available, play them now.
  2. Explain that most of the music they hear is based on major or minor scales. These scales have seven notes. The eighth note, the octave, just begins a repeat of the scale; musically speaking, it's basically the same note as the first note.
  3. Play a C major scale by playing all the "white key" notes from C to C.
  4. Have the students play a C major scale.
  5. Explain that a lot of the music they know is based on major scales. If you are comfortable playing the instrument, demonstrate by playing in C major part of a tune that you are sure they will recognize. If you don't know much about music, use the note names on the figure above to help you play the beginnings of a few easy tunes: "Happy Birthday to You"(GGAGCB GGAGDC), "Frere Jaque" (CDECCDEC EFG EFG), and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" (CCGGAAG FFEEDDC).
  6. If the class is not too large, and you have the time and patience, let the students explore the C major scale. Can they play the tunes you played? Can they find the right notes to finsih them? Can they play other tunes they know? Perhaps they can hum or sing along and finish the tunes that way. This section of the activity depends a lot on the students' age, musical experience, and aptitude. But even if the students are very young, try not to leave this step out; nothing catches a child's attention more than being allowed to experiment.
  7. If you have a globe or world map, have the students find the approximate location of your classroom on it. Now have them locate eastern Asia.
  8. Explain that much of the music from eastern Asia is based on a different scale, a pentatonic scale. It is called "pentatonic" because there are only five notes in each octave. (Any scale that has only five notes within each octave is a pentatonic scale.)
  9. Now play for them a pentatonic scale by playing all the "black key" notes.
  10. Have the students play this scale.
  11. Play for them, on the "black key" notes the beginning of the Korean folk songs "Arirang" (CDCDFGFGAGAFECDC) and "Doraji" (AAAAGF CDCAGF), both found in Two Traditional Korean Songs, or any other song you may be familiar with that is based on this scale (for example the famous "Cherry Blossom Song" from Japan, or a tune from a recording you played for them).
  12. Let them come up with exotic-sounding pentatonic tunes of their own. Encourage them to play for and listen to each other.
  13. If there is time, you can let find other pentatonic scales and invent tunes using them. Do the scales sound very much like the "black key" pentatonic scale (they may be transpositions of it), or are they different? (See Scales that aren't Major or Minor for more information.)

If you are still not sure yourself what the scales should sound like, listen to a C major scale and a C sharp pentatonic scale. You can also listen to the melodies of Arirang and Doraji.

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