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Harvard Dictionary of Music - the "official" definition!


Pentatonic scale. A scale that has five tones to the octave. Among the numerous scales of this kind the following are of special importance: (a) The tonal [G. anhemitonisch] pentatonic scale, i.e., a five-tone scale that has no semitones. Properly speaking, there is only one such scale (aside from transpositions): c d . f g a . c. However, by using different tones as a tonic, five different "modes" can be derived from it, e.g., d . f g a . c' d', or f g a . c' d' . f', etc. On the piano, such scales can easily be reproduced by playing the black keys only. The tonal pentatonic scale, usually in its "first mode" (on c), are occurs in the music of nearly all ancient cultures —China, Polynesia, Africa—as well as that of the American Indians, Celts, and Scots. The ancient Chinese construed it as a succession of ascending fifths and descending fourths: f-c'-g-d'-a [see China IIB]. A considerable number of Gregorian melodies are purely pentatonic and others may have originally been so. (b) The semitonal [G. hemitonisch] pentatonic scale results from omitting the second and the sixth or the second and the fifth degrees of the diatonic scale: c . e f g. b c', or: c . e f. a b c'. Since these scales include two major thirds (ditonus) they are also called "ditonic." The second form is of special on interest since this is the scale that, in descending op motion, prevailed in ancient Greece: e'. c' b has a.fe. Semitonal pentatonic scales frequently tor occur in modern *Japanese music, (c) A pentatonic scale with equidistant steps is the "Javanese slhidro. This has been used, under the name "pentaphonic" scale, by Alalepna [see A. Eaglefield Hull, in Monthly Musical Record, Sept. 1922, us« 212]. See J. Yasser, A Theory of Evolving Tonality (1932); B. Szabolcsi, in AM xv; W. Wiora, "Alternate die Pentatonik" (CP Bartok).