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Classical Notes

This is Your Brain on the Pentatonic Scale

Posted at 10:55 AM on August 11, 2009 by Gillian Martin (2 Comments)
Filed under: Fun finds, Musical philosophy

The pentatonic (five note) scale (e.g., just the black notes on a piano) shows up in indigenous folk music from all over the world, from the British Isles to West Africa to Asia.

The scale seems to be hard-wired into the human brain--or so this video suggests. It features Bobby McFerrin, former Creative Chair for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, at this summer's World Science Festival in New York City.

World Science Festival 2009: Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale from World Science Festival on Vimeo.

Thanks to my friend N. Jeanne Burns and her friend Elliot for the tip.


Comments (2)

Hard wired?. I don't think so.

We're not going to discover the universality of man through the pentatonic scale(s). And right there is why not--scale(s)--plural. There is more than one pentatonic scale. There are many. There is the hemitonic pentatonic scale, the anhemitonic, various modal scales, major and minor, plus all of the indigenous five tone scales that can't be approximated by the even tempered chromatic tuning of a piano.

What Bobby McFerrin does in the clip is to replace the do re mi of solfeggio with positions on the stage. Lots of fun, but there is no universality of man there.

Posted by Tom Foley | August 13, 2009 10:15 PM


Good points, Tom, thank you. To clarify for others, the choice of the phrase "hard-wired" was mine, not Mr. McFerrin's--so he's not to blame for the oversimplification.

Posted by Gillian Martin | August 14, 2009 11:01 AM