Are some musical scales hardwired into the human brain? In this video, American musician Bobby McFerrin of ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ fame shows how the pentatonic scale is more universal than we may realise.
A fly on the wall at IFC rehearsal lately would have heard the pentatonic scale in our Spring 2014 repertoire (and in case you were wondering, flies can hear — they sense vibrations in the air through receptors on their antennae). As its name suggests, the pentatonic scale consists of five (penta) notes in an octave — as opposed to a heptatonic scale, 7-note scale with which practitioners of Western music would be familiar.
The pentatonic scale is commonly used in Asian music, including the music of China, Japan and Korea, and parts of Southeast Asia — in addition to numerous other musical traditions such as ancient Greek music and Celtic folk music. The French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918), reportedly became enamoured by Javanese gamelan music and was one of the first European composers to use the pentatonic scale in Western classical music.
As McFerrin demonstrates, the pentatonic scale seems to be part of an instinctive human understanding. Why and how are great questions to dig deeper; but even without further enquiry, it’s nice to remind ourselves of the things that unite us!