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Home » Ideas & Exploration » Pentatonic Scales

Interact, Understand, Expand


Pentatonic Scales: Interact

Enjoy making music with this unique activity!

With a very young child, you can "play" the different tones and offer words that describe the sounds you are hearing – "chime," "twang," "high," "loud," etc. And you can let your child experiment with playing notes on his own.

As you and your older child explore the different elements of this activity, reflect on what you are noticing and prompt your child to do the same. For example, you might ask:

What do you notice about the different instrument sounds?

Different instruments have different "timbres" (pronounced "tam-bur")or sound qualities that can be described using words such as mellow, rich, echoing, scraping. Make up your own descriptions of the sounds you hear.

Can you play low notes? High notes?

The range of notes of any given instrument or voice is called its "register." Some instruments can only play in one register (a tuba can only play low, or bass notes), while others can play a wide range (keyboard instruments can span from low bass notes to high treble notes). The register of an instrument is not related to how loud or softly it can be played; the term for the volume at which an instrument or musical composition is played is "dynamics."

Can you play slowly? Quickly?

Musical speed is called "tempo," and composers have many different words to describe how fast or slow the music should be played.  Many of these words, such as "lento" (very slowly), "moderato" (moderately), and "allegro" (quickly) come from the original language (in this case, Italian) that composers used when they originally wrote their pieces.

Challenge your child to create a "mood" with the music – happy, sad, scared. Why does this music sound "different" from what we are used to hearing on radio, TV, and in concerts?

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Pentatonic Scales: Understand

"Artistic creativity is a whirlpool of imagination that swirls in the depths of the mind."
—contemporary artist and sculptor Robert Toth

Playful exploration, using multiple senses, is a hallmark of creative thinking and acting. With this activity, children are given an opportunity to "play around" with sounds. They are also encouraged to listen, combine, and compose their own musical pieces.

In music, a scale is a set of notes arranged by pitch. In a pentatonic scale, there are five notes in the scale. This differs from Western music in which there are typically eight notes in the scale (or twelve including flats and sharps). Pentatonic scales are most widely used in traditional music of Asia and India. By providing three sets of the same five notes, arranged from lowest to highest, this activity offers a satisfying number of notes for creating compositions that have both melody and harmony.

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Pentatonic Scales: Expand

Explore music further.

Offline Activities

Make some Musical Magic by creating your own instrument with found objects or with drinking glasses. Directions for making a Glass Xylophone are available at the ZOOM! Web site.

Or invent some Musical Mood Moves and move your body to different musical styles.

Remember: use your own creativity to generate ideas that inspire you and your child! To see an age-by-age breakdown of what your child might be ready for, check out the PBS Parents Child Development Tracker.

Online Resources

Try these other PBS Kids musical activities:

Build on your experience with musical patterns to explore the visual patterns of Kaleidoscope and the activities in Kaleidoscope's Expand section.

Explore the rhythm of poetic language with Haiku or the activities in Haiku's Expand section.

Learn more about Billy Taylor at the Duke EllingtonĂ­s Washington Web site or the Billy Taylor Jazz Web site. Let the story of this noted American contemporary jazz pianist, composer, and music educator inspire your music making.

Explore the history of Jazz at the companion Web site to the Ken Burns' documentary.

Books and References

Check out the following books that combine information about music, musicians, and ensembles with lyrical language that is, in itself, musical:

  • The Maestro Plays by Bill Martin, Jr. is essentially a book of onomatopoeia describing the motions and sounds of an orchestra under the direction of a Maestro (ages 2 to 6).
  • In Zin Zin Zin A Violin by Lloyd Moss, rhyming couplets present varieties of ensembles—solo, duet, trio, quartet, quintet, etc. (ages 4 to 8).
  • In My Family Plays Music by Judy Cox, the wide variety of musical styles presented is a perfect accompaniment to Moss's book (ages 4 to 8).
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