POST What is the Pentatonic Scale?

How to Use it in Our Waldorf Homeschool
By Jodie Mesler

First of all, what is a scale? For those of us beginning our musical education, it would be great to understand the word scale. It is an ascending or descending arrangement of notes in a certain order of pitch.  Remember the movie, The Sound of Music? "Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, te, do," this is the major scale ascending. We are very familiar with this order of of pitch. Written music with this scale sounds lovely.   As a beginning music student, starting on this scale seems to be more harmful than good. Let me explain, when we are creating music with the major scale, beginning and ending on certain notes can sound unpleasant. I started on this scale and I remember as a child wanting to create beautiful music and feeling very frustrated because this is the only scale I knew.  It is not until I had many years of music education, that I could fully understand how to create my own music with this scale.

Ahh, a pleasant scale, a natural scale, that's the pentatonic scale! It is actually the most common, worldly scale used dating way back to ancient China. I am surprised of how many folk, blues, county, jazz, and rock songs contain just these five notes within their melodies. It was not until I was in College that I discovered the pentatonic scale.  It was not until I became a performer in a blues band that I realized how great is was to use this scale.  Basically, a pentatonic scale, "penta," meaning five, is made up of five notes of the diatonic scale, omitting the fourth and seventh note. As a simple example, here are five notes we can use G, A, B, D, E. Notice note C and F are omitted. Also, we can use the five notes again as they go higher up in the scale like this: D, E, G, A, B, D¹, E¹, G¹.

When making music using pentatonic notes, we create a very soothing, pleasing, and nourishing mood for our children. It is very hard to describe in words, the only way to really know, is by trying it. (Hopefully, you will be inspired to play it by the end of this article.) As there are no wrong sounding notes, every note works nicely, we can start and end on any note because every note is pleasing.  My soul's desire when I was a child was to make music, if any of my teachers had guided me to this scale, then the effects of my music making would have been more natural and fulfilling. Making pentatonic music is like painting a wet-on-wet water color picture with the primary colors while having no intention of painting a subject. As we paint, we are able to watch the colors dance on the paper as images and rainbow colors come alive. Now follow me and you will easily learn how to make music come alive - instantly.

Let's say we have no musical background and we feel we cannot possibly bring music to our child.  We can simply use the pentatonic notes right away and begin to make music effortlessly.  Imagine making music that feels good and not having to worry about playing a wrong note.  What a simply wonderful way to begin musical education for ourselves and our child!  Wouldn't it be great if we could get all music educators to begin with this scale?  This is not my concept, but that of Rudolf Steiner.  He is the founder of Waldorf Education, and this is how Waldorf students are introduced to music.

Where can we begin? A parent's singing voice is the first place to start.  Songs that are written using pentatonic notes create a very pleasing and dreamy mood not only in the adult but also in a young child. "Mood of the Fifth," was a song I wrote incorporating some of Rudolf Steiner's lecture. (See sheet music at the bottom of this page) Here are the lyrics:

"A mother’s singing voice is very unique.
 Her singing voice follows the rhythm of speech,
Enfolding the child, in stillness and peace;
Creating a mood to connect with heaven.
A glimpse of heaven is the secret key,
For the mood of stillness is in this melody.
Although the child keeps moving along,
He will always find stillness and peace in her song."

You can find many other pentatonic songs in American folk songs and in other Waldorf-Inspired books.

The next place we can start is with this step by step music lesson curriculum that I created especially for Waldorf-Inspired homeschooling parents called The Magic Flute. In this easy approach, the 6-year-old will only play three pentatonic notes which are B, A, and G. Parents, our primary focus is that of Steiner's- pleasing sounds, rhythms, and listening skills through imitation. Lessons are laid out with simple instructions in the ebook as well as in the videos, which also include teacher lessons on how to play the penny whistle on the full pentatonic scale using notes D, E, G, A, B, D¹, E¹, G¹. 

Next, we can follow up with our child between the ages of 7-9, moving to Living Music From the Heart: Music Curriculum Volume 2. So many great folk tunes I found written in the pentatonic scale of which twenty tunes were selected like Shortnin’ Bread and The Farmer in the Dell.  Did I mention that there are many games, lessons, playing tips, and improvisational skills that will be fun for us all, too?

Now, going back to the pentatonic scale, if we want to experience the pentatonic scale right away, simply play ONLY the black keys on the piano. This is something we can do now. We can get a visual idea of what a pentatonic scale looks like and sounds like. These black keys make up a pentatonic scale and the notes are Db, Eb, then Gb, Ab, Bb. This scale is half a step lower than the D, E, G, A, B scale. It is fun to improvise on the black keys, give it a try! I know that when I play or create songs using this scale, I immediately feel better, uplifted, and refreshed. I teach my kids to do the same and we are all brought into a pleasantness of our musical experience together.

Here are some thoughts from Lauri Bolland on her understanding of the pentatonic scale and a peek into the Waldorf approach of music:

I also began reading up a bit on the Waldorf approach to music. I've
read a lot of Steiner over the years, but very little about music.
When I began reading, I was even more impressed with Jodie's work and
knowledge. There's a great article at the website by
Lebret Shepherd, a waldorf music teacher in Ontario. In it, he talks
about Steiner's lecture on "The Human Being's Experience of Tone".
How Steiner taught that man and music are a *unity* and cannot be
considered separately, because the development of music runs parallel
with the development of man. (We've heard this before in regard to
the Main Lesson curriculum, too. It's a recurring theme.) So, he says
we can't just start singing a song - we have to be aware of the
child's developmental stage. I hadn't thought of this, but of course
it makes sense in the light of the whole of Waldorf education. So
Steiner said before age 9 children "live in the mood of the fifth
interval". (As in five notes. Penta = five as in pentagon.
Pentatonic = five notes.) Only gradually, as the child grows down
into her body can she start hearing notes in the 7th, 9th, etc. AHA!
(I think) Perhaps this is why our attempts at the 9-note recorder
were flops? Mr Shepherd goes on to say that in those places that
were untouched by Greek Thinking (such as Scotland and Ireland the
music of which the Scotch Irish brought to the Appalachians and Nova
Scotia in North America, as well as South America and many places in
Eastern Europe) retain the mood of the fifth. This makes sense. OK!
THIS is why Jodie uses folk songs! They're not just convenient,
they're pedagogically correct. Folk music has always been a
particular favorite of mine, anyway, but this gave me an even greater
and deeper appreciation for it - not just Folk Songs, but the
beautiful folk music of Ireland, Scotland, the Appalachians, and such.

Another thing I noticed is that some of Jodie's original music
doesn't always end the way I think it should. So, I'd be playing a
song and which goes UP at the end (such as Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater
in lesson 5) and I think, "No, no. It should go DOWN at the end." Do
you know what I mean? Well, back to Mr Shepherd's article and I made
a fascinating discovery. Mr Shepherd indicates that developmentally,
children in the lower grades do not end songs tonically (going down)
as we adults like them to be with our adult ears. They end them still
in the mood of the fifth which is... going UP. Shepherd goes on to
indicate that this fact (the going UP) means many existing children's
songs which end tonically should be changed - he goes on to indicate
samples of this phenomena. I picked up my pennywhistle to play along
and see what he means, and - yes - this is just what Jodie has done
in her book. That explains it! There's so much more to Jodie's
program, so much more Waldorf/Steiner, than I had even realized.

Steiner also said that songs should first be sung, and then played.
So, children are playing out of what they have already sung. I think
that a mother who spends a few weeks teaching herself the
pennywhistle, and (like I did) beginning to sing these songs around
the house will find this super easy. The children will already be
signing (and hearing) the songs in the lesson book before he/she ever
begins playing. Because the songs are catchy and pleasant, that's not
at all hard to do. He (Steiner) said the finger movements should
operate on hearing, and when they know the song and can hear it in
their heads, a great part of the work is already done for us.

Steiner also said that young children should use a "blowing
instrument" (not recorder, not wood, just blowing). He also gave one
golden rule which MUST be followed by teachers: loud playing should
be prevented from the very first moment. The pennywhistles Jodie
included in the kit are old-fashioned beginner's tin whistles. One of
the things that makes these pennywhistles unique from other whistles
on the market is the wooden fipple and the "large bore", meaning the
windway is large. The pennywhistle is thick, so it takes a lot of
air. Did I say a lot of air? I meant a looooooooooot of air. :-)
While this was a little bit of an irritation to me when I first began
playing, NOW here I saw the great wisdom in it. These tin whistles
almost can't be overblown or blown too loudly, thereby teaching the
children breath control from the very first day. Brilliant.

Shepherd states that this type of music lesson isn't meant to be
constraining, but meets the child where he is. It lets the child
gently down on a parachute. Isn't that a pretty analogy? It may not
be Suzuki, but it's "gently down on a parachute" - which is much more
my speed. Caroline Von Heydebrand (who worked with Steiner and was
the head teacher in charge of formulating Steiner's indications into
curriculum) says this, "Through the musical lyrical element, we
mollify [mitigate, reduce, soften] the hardening influences of the
intellectual life of concepts and ideas and preserve the freshness of
the life forces." I think in this world where more and more of our
life is cold, hard, plastic and intellectual, bringing any softness
into my children's life forces can only be a good thing.