Earlier this month I spent some time with five-note scales, AKA pentatonic scales. I sort of felt rejuvenated after doing so. When you just have five notes, each note becomes vital; an entity in itself. It's less about what notes you have to work with or the succession you play them in, and more about how you play those notes and the feeling you have while doing so.
Pentatonic scales are conducive to improvisation - playing original, unpredictable phrases of your own invention, in free rhythm. Just playing around with these notes makes pleasing sound combinations. You can hop around however you like.
The pentatonic scale is sometimes referred to as the black key scale since if you play only the black keys of a piano keyboard you will be playing in a pentatonic scale. Playing within pentatonic scales can cause your music to take on an Eastern feel, as the pentatonic scale is the most frequently used type of scale in the music of the Far-East. It is also used in Native American flute music.
To create the most common type of pentatonic scale you simply remove the 4th and 7th notes from the 7-note major scale. In the key of C (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) you remove the 4th note F and the 7th note B to create a five note scale with the notes C, D, E, G, A.
From this five note scale of C, D, E, G, A you can create four other modes:
D, E, G, A, C (transposed to C that would be C, D, F, G, Bb)
E, G, A, C, D (transposed to C that would be C, Eb, F, Ab, Bb)
G, A, C, D, E (transposed to C that would be C, D, F, G, A)
A, C, D, E, G (transposed to C that would be C, Eb, F, G, Bb)
These modes can go by different names in different cultures:
C, D, E, G, A = Ryo in Japan, Tizita Major in Ethiopia.
C, D, F, G, Bb = Yematebela Wofe in Ethiopian music. Slendro in gamelan.
C, Eb, F, Ab, Bb = Shegaye in Ethiopian music. Man Gong in China.
C, D, F, G, A = Ritsu in Japan. Ambassel (Major) in Ethiopia.
C, Eb, F, G, Bb = Minyo in Japan, used in Shakuhachi flute music. Also called Batti Minor in Ethiopia.
Some other more unusual pentatonic scales include:
C, Db, F, G, Ab = Kumoi in Japan. Ambassel (Minor) in Ethiopia.
C, Db, F, Gb, Bb = Iwato in Japan.
C, Db, F, G, Bb = Han Iwato in Japan.
C, Db, F, Gb, A = Anchihoye in Ethiopian music.
C, Db, Eb, G, Ab = Balinese Pelog pentatonic.
C, D, Eb, G, Ab = Hirajoshi in Japan, Tizita Minor in Ethiopia. Distinctive use of semitones.
C, D, F, G, Ab = Kokin Joshi in Japan.
C, D, Eb, G, A = Akebono in Japan.
C, D, Eb, G, Bb = Pygmy scale.
C, Eb, F, G, Bb = Batti Minor.
C, Eb, F#, G, Bb = Batti Minor 4# in Ethiopia. A variant of Batti Minor/Minyo.
C, Eb, F#, G, B = Batti Minor 4/7# in Ethiopia. Like the Hungarian minor mode minus two notes.
C, E, F, G, B = Rhukuan in Japan. A unique scale from Okinawa. Also called Batti Major in Ethiopia.
C, E, F#, G, B = Batti Major #4 in Ethiopia. A variation of the Batti Major mode. Also the "Chinese" scale.
C, E, F, G#, B = Batti Major #5 in Ethiopia. Also called Bacovia in Romanian music.
C, E, F, A, B = no name Japanese mode. (one of the Kumoi modes)
C, E, F#, A, B = no name Asian scale.
Note that Hirajoshi, Kumoi Joshi, and Iwato are all modes of the same basic pentatonic scale.
Pentatonic scales are a reminder that your instrument can be a spiritual tool to reach enlightenment and that playing is a form of meditation. Total absorption in the task is perhaps a more noble achievement than advancement to a higher technical skill level.
Under the watchful and critical eye of a master one may practice the writing of Chinese characters for days and days, months and months. But he watches as a gardener watches the growth of a tree, and wants his student to have the attitude of the tree - the attitude of purposeless growth in which there are no short cuts because every stage of the way is both beginning and end. (Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, Zen in the Arts)