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The Pentatonic Scale

Photo by Steve Jurvetson CC BY 2.0

Pumpkin spice lattes are available at Starbucks and that can only mean one thing, fall is upon us. The weather is starting to change (at least in other parts of the country), the football season has begun, our favorite TV show are returning and of course, school is back in session. Even though we work on learning and improving our skills all year long, I thought this would be an appropriate time to add a little extra education into the newsletter.

One of the appealing aspects of our style of music is that, for the most part, it makes sense musically. A good arrangement takes a melody and applies the harmonies and harmonic progressions that are naturally implied by that melodic line. The foundation of our barbershop style started with harmonies that were sung “on-the-fly”. There were no written arrangements like we know today. The singers had to rely on their ears to tell them where the harmony should be.

However, you might be asking yourself how they could learn those progressions without lessons and training and sheet music. The answer to that lies in nature and the physics of sound. In rehearsals we work to make sure all of our chords are in tune and we celebrate when our vocal skills and tuning align and we create overtones. Those overtones are the audible frequencies that occur because of the harmonic series.

But, before we head down the rabbit hole of understanding the math and physics of the harmonic series, let’s get a simpler understanding of the power of the pentatonic scale and the human mind. The pentatonic scale is a musical scale made up of just 5 notes per octave. Use of the pentatonic scale has been a part of many cultures and styles of music for centuries, lending evidence that it is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Not sure if you’ve heard a pentatonic scale? Hum a few bars of Amazing Grace or Auld Lang Syne. We will explore more about this scale and how it relates to barbershop music in future newsletters and at our weekly chorus rehearsals. For now, watch this video to see how powerful and intuitive the pentatonic scale is.

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